Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Day I fell out of love with UNSW ProgComp

I love programming. 

I really like getting into a problem I find difficult. I quite relish the heart pounding self doubt before I finally untangle my own thoughts and get a stupid machine to do my bidding. I'm not very good at it, I am not able to intuit node traversal or dynamic programming or (god forbid) prolog parsing but I love having a go and am completely addicted to the euphoria when I get a problem out. Cryptic crosswords are a similar joy (except Fridays in the smh, gah!). So with all this love in me I try to engender the same kind of relish for tricky problems with my students.

I run a code club and teach years 8, 9 10 and 11 and have some form of programming in the teaching programs for all of those years with Year 11 studying the NSW Software Design syllabus. These students are encouraged to seek out ways to stretch themselves forward rather than just do what already feels comfortable. 

Every year for the last several years we've had a ProgComp Party!

ProgComp is an annual competition run by UNSW where the grand prize is scholarship money towards the winning students' future tuition. It's part of the UNSW outreach program and is more about recruitment for them but also purportedly about getting more students engaged with tricky programming problems.

What's a ProgComp Party? The students spend several weeks (for an hour or so a week) honing their Python skills, I order Pizza for lunch and buy a stupid amount of lollies. I book out a computer lab and we move all the library's portable white boards in. The students have some code snippets to get started with and when it kicks off at 2PM I print 10 copies of all the questions and teams do their best to hack together an answer or two. 

We're not very good. We're never going to get into the finals and I have been known to prod the younger students a bit to get them over the line of completing a question. We don't mind not being real contenders though. As one of my Year 9s said "It's not about winning it's about getting a bit better each year."

We usually get to the end of the 2 hours feeling bruised and battered and exhausted but happy in our small successes.

Not this year however. This year the atmosphere was completely different and I had to convince some of my students not to leave early -- that's never happened before.

What was it about this year that was different? It was harder and more mathy, more impenetrable and much less accessible to my students. The questions were so poorly explained that I had to read them multiple times to work out how to retell them to the students in a way that would get them started. 

I understand that we're not the target market for this competition. It's about attracting the super-geeks and encouraging them to put UNSW first on their uni application. But my goal is to present kids with tricky problems that will whet their appetites and sharpen their thinking skills and have them feel more efficacious than they did the year before. 

I'm not a maths teacher but I do run the maths club at school (although that might be a grandiose title for what it is), and I'm not afraid of a bit of maths but it's intimidating for kids to see formulae they don't understand. 

The Junior question was not very hard once you understood it. It involved file processing and formula following but it was so badly framed that my juniors were at sea and I was giving far more help than I ought to have just to have them feel like they were still part of it.

The first question after the junior was quite a tricky problem with a mapping of the shape of strings necessary. It took a serious amount of time to decompose before even thinking about syntax. 

Needless to say we're not going to the finals but my concern is that the on-ramp was so steep that I might lose some of my students who walk away thinking this programming thing is impossible. Now I'm going to make it my mission in life to ensure that doesn't happen but I can't see booking a room with the whiteboards and the Pizzas and the lollies again next year. Maybe we'll attempt the Friday cryptic crossword instead. 

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