Today the 6th graders spent time reviewing the benefits of pair programming. While initially hesitant about working with a partner (many of the students wanted the freedom and flexibility to write their own computer program), the 6th graders finally experienced the rewards of working closely with a classmate.  

Students spent the first 10-15 minutes of class reflecting on their individual (and their partner's) Pair Programming practices.  Some of the students rated themselves quite high, while others recognized their failings and recorded it appropriately.  After taking the time to reflect and review the roles, the students were eager to correct their mistakes and tackled the task with renewed commitment. 

The Girls Creating Games Guide to Pair Programming from Youth and Technology defines Pair Programming as follows: "Pair Programming is the most widely tested, if not the only, collaborative learning structure where two users work together on a single computer in a way that gives both a critical role in completing their IT project. In pair programming, one partner serves as the “Driver” while operating the keyboard and the mouse to execute operations. The other partner acts as the “Navigator.” In a classic code-writing situation, there are two primary roles of the Navigator: one is to actively review the code-writing and catch errors as they happen in order to prevent glitches or bugs in the software, and the other is to collaborate with the Driver to generate solutions to programming tasks or problems. We added a third primary role to the job of Navigator – that of managing all the print-based materials, including both instructional aides and project materials."

Before we make anything – a house, a dress or a computer program – we should start with a design. Because there are two important parts to most programs – the interface (how it looks) and the code – we design these separately.
  • The easiest way to design the interface is by sketching it out on paper.
  • To design the code, write out a list of steps it will have to perform in English. 
This is known as an algorithm and is just like the steps in a food recipe. Solving problems like this is what programming is really about, rather than entering 
commands on the computer. 
All good programmers design algorithms before starting to code
Learning to think out ALL the parts of the program before any coding starts is a hard concept for 6th graders.  As a way to reinforce this important concept, I shared another Computation Fairy Tale with the students - The Importance of Design in Five Course Meals. "Good design practices can save a significant amount of time, help avoid wasting effort, and prevent mistakes."

Currently the two classes are working on two different game designs - Maze Game & Chase Game.  The first step in the design process was to determine the general objective and rules of the games.  From their the pairs had to determine the specific conditions of their individual games and then identify the major components:
  • The Start
  • Movement
  • Winning/Losing

Below is a sample of their initial attempt at designing algorithms for their games:

Computer science concepts as told through fairy tales - by Jeremy Kubica
In an effort to reinforce important computer science concepts, I shared a brief fairytale with the 6th graders today.  The short-story, "The Importance of (Variable) Names", focuses on the need to create clear, meaningful variable names in writing understandable and maintainable code. 

By the time Princess Ann had reached the northernmost outpost within the kingdom, she was losing hope. Her father, King Fredrick, had sent her on a quest to save the kingdom from impending darkness almost a month ago. So far, Ann had found nothing. Meanwhile reports of roaming dragons and hordes of goblins increased throughout the kingdom. Ann felt completely demoralized.

The outpost of Garroow had been hit particularly hard by the recent chaos. The goblin attacks had been increasing in recent weeks. The commander, Sir Aat, had sent word to Ann's father that the outpost was in desperate need of reinforcements. At a loss for better stops on her quest, Princess Ann headed north to Garroow.

The situation in Garroow was worse than she had expected. During her first night at the outpost, a small goblin attack almost overwhelmed it. The fifty person garrison barely held off just three, relatively lethargic, goblins. She heard the captain shouting orders at his solders: “Ut, guard the South wall. No, I meant Ot. Ut, stay where you are.” “Drex, swap places with Plex, we need an archer on the wall not a blacksmith.” “Et, secure that door.” .........

After listening to the story, the 6th graders quickly identified the important concepts and were able to make strong connections with their Scratch programs.  In addition to realizing the need to assign descriptive names to variables, it is also important to do the same for other pieces of code (messages in the broadcast command, names for sprites, costumes and backdrops).

6th Grade Scratch Projects - demonstrating loops and variables

The sixth graders spent the week working on their "What's My Number" program.  For many of the students it was their first time working with loops and conditional statements.  

Below is a list of Computational Concepts that students were exposed to while working on the Random Number Guessing "Game":
A common refrain from the students was - "Its not working".  What does that mean?  Computers only do what the programmer (which in this case was the students) tells it.  Was it a case of the computer not listening, or more accurately, the programmer not communicating clearly? Or, did they not understand the concepts I was trying to teach?  Since this was their first time working with loops and conditionals in Scratch, I would bet that for many of the students the answer would be a mixture of the two. 

One of the major skills necessary for writing good code, is the ability to break a problem down into smaller parts and to then translate it into commands that the computer can follow.  This important 21st Century Skill is known as Computational Thinking.

CSTA and ISTE define Computational Thinking as:
  • Formulating problems in a way that enables us to use a computer and other tools to help solve them.
  • Logically organizing and analyzing data
  • Representing data through abstractions such as models and simulations
  • Automating solutions through algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps)
  • Identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources
  • Generalizing and transferring this problem solving process to a wide variety of problems

For the purposes of this assignment (program) students had to focus on developing a solution that not only solved the problem, but solved it in the most efficient and effective way possible.  To this end, we created a rubric to help them identify the varying levels of completion (for their finished program).  To help them internalize these levels, the students had to evaluate their own programs as well as the program of one of their classmates.