This Week in the Classroom: Computer Science & Electronics

The Fall 2011 semester came to an end last week.   I’m taking stock of what-used-to-be (my previous semesters classes) and re-tooling, re-gearing and re-searching my way into new course-load.

I’d like to start with my Computer Science & Electronics course.  I described this course as:

This course introduces computer programming to students with little or no prior programming or technology experience. Students will use Alice, 3D graphical computer language, to introduce basic computer science theory. Topics to be covered include program design and problem solving, Boolean operators, logic statements, loops and flowcharts. Unlike other languages, Alice lends itself to an exploration of thought, rather than an exercise in coding or mathematical ability. If time allows, the Python language will also be explored.  In the electronics portion, students will explore basic electronic concepts of resistance, current and voltage.  Students will learn to build, manipulate and understand basic circuits & operate the tools necessary to create these circuits.  Students will identify basic parts, such as resistors, switches, wires and capacitors.

So, let’s go over the class and see how I did and what I will do better in the future.

Computer Science & Electronics revolved around three major units: learning Computer Science with Alice, Microcontrollers with Arduino and electronics.

I used Learning to Program in Alice (2nd edition) as our computer science textbook. My students completed the first four chapters of this book, building step by step tutorials.  After each chapter, they built small programs which showcased their new knowledge – a animation of a poem they read in English class, a demonstration of physics for Science & exercises provided by the book.  The book does a great job of scaffolding skills, techniques and concepts but writes at the level of a precocious 10th-grader.  My students, as a whole, struggle with reading and reading comprehension and therefore would follow the pictures rather than engage the activity.  I also saw a great divide between my algebra-ready and my algebra-deficient students – one group could grasp concepts like routines and sub-routines, variables and true/false questions whereas the other group looked at me like I had six heads.  My success here was mixed.  The textbook and projects satisfied the advanced students but I struggled to connect with my less academically-advanced students.

Once I had exposed my students to the basics of computer science, we began exploring micro-controllers – specifically the Arduino.  We build several of the examples in Getting Started with Arduino.  Banzi’s little book has four or so different labs – blink labs and its variations mainly – which use a minimum of parts.  Loading the Arduino onto a server requires an IT guy.  The labs were quick and easy – I wish I had taken more photos and developed this curriculum more.  My impressions here are just that – impressions.

I chose Make: Electronics by Charles Platt to guide my students’ explorations in electricity.  It was a solid, hands-on, discovery based text.  There are 25 experiments which explore the basic properties of electricity, circuits and integrated circuits.  The illustrations are colorful and detailed.  The projects scaffold very well.  The book takes 11 experiments to get to basic breadboarding – low and slow is the way to go with my students.

On the other hand, it’s not made as a “textbook” – it jumps around from subject to subject and only covers a topic “enough”.  As in “enough to get by”.  I wouldn’t want to take a standardized test using this guy as my go-to reference.  I’m not held to a multiple-choice exam.  I’m looking to enrich my students academic experience and reinforce their executive functioning (those hard to teach and express thinking skills) skills and strategies.  Lastly, this book should be paired with the component packs from the Maker Shed.  In some experiments, parts procurement can be difficult without suitable planning (invariably, the experiment I wanted to do with the kids and I didn’t have a part.  Or I had two parts and the circuit called for three).  Radioshack carries many parts, Sparkfun or local stores may have the others.  The Component packs make this process easy and fast.  Just pick the experiment, grab some parts and get to learning.  Unfortunately, each component pack costs $100.  Between two component packs and a book, this combination of text and materials costs nigh on $250 per lab kit.  It seems high.

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Finally, I’d like to talk about class structure.  I decided the grading rubric would be split between “daily” labs and projects.  Projects could be multi-part tests, culminating products & rubric-based projects.  Students broke into three learning groups, three kids each and rotated through a set of labs.  Often, I would have one Alice lab, one Electronics lab and an Arduino hack.  This rotation came after a period of trail and error involving larger groups, massive technology & material bottlenecks.

It took a while for me (and the students) to get into the flow of class.  I started out with open-ended, rubric-based small programs or electronics labs and ended with very procedural assignments.  I made this change to get better engagement with my students.  My students responded to the structure better than they responded to the freedom.  Looking back, I should have begun with the step-by-step directions and moved to the more science-fairish lab notes.  My last few labs and weeks went far smoother with these resources.

Homework was posted on, a site which offers free website hosting for teachers. I used dropbox to store & share large files.  I used a site called Spiderscribe to create unit maps and portfolio checks. For a dyslexic student, I used Audacity to record and publish audio files of textbooks.  TX/RX Labs deserves special mention, as they provided a local resource of experts for me to pull from.

This course was full of mixed results.  The Alice and Arduino sections went over very well with the students, whereas the electronics labs constantly fell down.  Perhaps it was the subject matter, perhaps it was the delivery, perhaps the structure.  I did adapt to my student’s needs – my later lessons worked much better than my first.  Next course, I will be building video tutorials for Alice, getting a better Arduino resource to work from & using the Compentent Packs for electronics.

Enjoy your holidays.


Make it safe & keep the rubber side down.