EppsNet Archive: Video Games

Teaching Computer Science: Asking for Help

9 Jan 2018 /

I’m volunteering a couple mornings a week at a local high school, helping out with computer science classes.

Cell phone

This morning, in AP Computer Science Principles, the teacher went through an explanation of the hexadecimal number system, then gave an in-class assignment for students to convert their cell phone number to hexadecimal. Not in two parts, 3 digits and 4 digits, but as a 7-digit number.

It seemed pretty obvious from the interaction and the body language and the looks on their faces that a lot of students didn’t get it, but in a class of 25 students, only one student asked for help. Until the teacher finished with that student and asked “Does anyone else need help?” and eight more students immediately raised their hand.

I asked the teacher, “Can I address the class for a minute?”

 

“First off, doing a 7-digit hex conversion is not easy. I know professional programmers who can’t do it. So I’d expect someone trying to do it for the first time to need some help.

“In fact, if you know any professional programmers, ask them to do a hex conversion on their phone number. Let me know what happens. I guarantee you won’t have to ask too many people before you stump someone.

Snap programming

“None of the material in this class is easy. Snap programming? You might look at it and think ‘There’s a cat and a fish and a duck . . . I’m not understanding it but it looks like a program for 5-year-olds. It’s embarrassing as a high school student to have to ask for help with it. Maybe I’m not very smart.’

“No, Snap is a university-level curriculum from Berkeley. Academically rigorous. I worked through the assignments myself and I found them pretty challenging. I’d expect many of you to find them challenging as well. So you should be asking for help.

“If you need help, waiting for someone to ask if you need help is not going to be a winning strategy. In school, in life or in anything. Because if no one asks, then you need help and you don’t get it.

“There’s probably a natural reluctance to ask questions because what if I’m the only person who doesn’t know the answer? Then I ask a question and look foolish.

“It’s going to be unusual in any class that you’re the only person who doesn’t understand something. If you find that happens to you a lot, you may have a problem. But normally it’s going to be pretty unusual.

“I can tell you in this class, there’s definitely more than one person who finds the material pretty challenging. As I said, I find it pretty challenging myself. It’s not so challenging that I need help with it, but it’s definitely challenging enough that I’d expect most people who are not programmers to need help with it.

Hexadecimal

“I’m also hearing some people today saying to themselves or to the person next to them, ‘Why do we need to know this?'” That’s actually a very good question. Binary of course is the fundamental language of computers, but why would you need to know hexadecimal? Anyone?”

No hands go up.

“OK, we’ll talk about that in a minute. If it’s not clear to you, in this class or any class, why you’re being asked to learn something, put your hand up and insist on understanding the relevance.

“One final anecdote:

“I worked with an AP class a couple of years ago at another school. About this same timeframe, late first semester, I was in class on a Monday and before the class started, one of the students asked me, ‘How was your weekend?’

“I said, ‘It was okay. How was yours?’

“‘It was great! I played like 47 straight hours of [some video game I can’t remember the name of].’

“And he was one of the worst students in the class, maybe the worst.

“I know he and his parents had met with the principal and the teacher to figure out why he was doing so poorly in computer science. It had to be the school’s fault, right?

“So I’m trying to wrap my mind around this. You played 47 hours of video games, you have no idea what’s going on in this class, and it’s the teacher’s fault?!

“No, it’s your fault. You put nothing into it so you get nothing out of it, you don’t ask for help, and that’s why you’re failing.

“Moral of the story: Don’t be that guy.

Thus spoke The Programmer.


Teaching Computer Science: The Last Day

13 Jun 2015 /
Space Invaders

On the last day of class, I gave students the code for a partially working Space Invaders game, along with instructions for adding collision detection and completing the implementation. The instructions didn’t leave too much to the imagination because I wanted to give everyone a chance to finish out the year on a successful note. I estimated it to be about a 30-minute activity. It didn’t occur to me that that students would do anything but finish the program and spend whatever time was left over blasting aliens.

What they actually did was, they finished the program, tweaked the firing interval so they could shoot faster, changed the speed of the sprites, added more aliens, changed the program to shoot two bullets at a time instead of one, changed the program to shoot five bullets at a time, enabled the aliens to drop bombs, had the game recognize that when the alien count gets to zero, it should stop and write You Won or Game Over, switched the image files to cooler looking spaceships and missiles . . . one student changed the alien image to a picture of my dog (available from a previous assignment), pugs from outer space.

So when I say that we couldn’t have had a better group of students, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. They exceeded expectations on all metrics. I wish I could have thanked each of them individually for their unique contributions to the class.

Programming is what I do, it’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to share it and I’m sad that it’s ending . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Mindset

17 Nov 2014 /
Studying

Photo Credit: dongga BS

I’m not comfortable giving people advice that they didn’t ask for, so I usually preface it by saying “Feel free to ignore this . . .”

That being said, I want to talk about the mindset I think you should have for this class, maybe for other classes, maybe even for things outside of school.

Feel free to ignore this . . .

Education has allowed me to make a living doing things that I like and things that I’m good at. A lot of people are not able to say that. Most people, I think, are not able to say that. Most people are like “I hate Mondays” and “Thank god it’s Friday” and that sort of thing.

I have had jobs where I spent the day doing things that I don’t like and I’m not good at and it’s painful. And the amount of money you get paid to do it doesn’t seem to make it any less painful.

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins . . . some of them were serious about education and some of them weren’t. And the ones who weren’t, I don’t want to say they’re all losers, but they’re all . . . disappointments. As I expected they would be. My wife doesn’t like when I say this — she thinks it’s bad karma or something — but I like it when people screw around in school and go on to have disappointing lives because it reinforces everything that I believe to be true about life.

It’s satisfying when people make bad decisions and suffer the consequences, isn’t it? I think it is.

My own mindset, and this doesn’t apply just to school, is that no one is going to outwork me and no one is going to outlearn me. If you’re working on homework or a programming assignment, or you’re studying for a test or quiz, and you get stuck on something, and you try to get unstuck by reading the textbook, or going to the website and reviewing lecture slides or handouts or watching a video or posting a question to the Facebook group, you’re doing things the right way. You should do well in the class, you should do well on the AP exam and I’ll do everything I can to help you do well in the class and on the AP exam.

If you hear yourself saying things like, “I spent the weekend playing 47 straight hours of video games, and by the way, I have no idea what’s going on in this class,” you’re unlikely to do well.

If you’re asking questions about assignments on or after the due date, you’re unlikely to do well.

If you miss a class and don’t check the website to see what you missed, you’re unlikely to do well. Everything we cover in class is on the website, plus a lot of extra stuff as well.

“Nobody’s going to outwork me and nobody’s going to outlearn me.”

Again, if that doesn’t make sense to you, feel free to ignore it . . .


Why Aren’t Women Interested in Computer Science?

30 Nov 2013 /
The Big Bang Theory

According to this recently published research paper, women aren’t interested in computer science because of media portrayals like “The Big Bang Theory,” in which technologists are depicted as socially awkward, interested in science fiction and video games and physically unattractive.

If that seems like a compelling line of reasoning, you can read a more complete write-up in this WSJ.com article.

What I’ve never been able to figure out is why people are so interested in why women aren’t interested in computer science . . .


The Game Blame Game

22 Jul 2012 /
Washington Bullets uniform

My boy is playing NBA 2K12 and points out that my Where’s Waldo shirt looks like the Washington Wizards (nee Bullets) throwback uniforms.

“Where’s John Wall-do?” he says.

Ha ha. I get my comeback opportunity a few minutes later when his game player passes to a teammate, who scores, but his player doesn’t get credit for an ssist.

“HOW CAN THAT BE ANYTHING BUT AN ASSIST FOR ME?!” he shouts in disbelief. “That’s bad programming.”

“Oh I doubt that,” I say. “The people who program video games are a lot smarter than the people who play them.”


How inspiring is it that the 99 percent have $4 billion to spend on Call of Duty video games? #getajob

Posted by on 9 Nov 2011

Matchup Problems

10 Aug 2009 /
NBA 2K9 cover

My 15-year-old kid has created a custom NBA 2K9 roster consisting entirely of 7-foot-11 point guards.

“It creates some real matchup problems,” he says.


Twitter: 2009-06-24

24 Jun 2009 /

Rated M for Mature

25 Apr 2009 /

My son and I are watching a TV commercial for the Resident Evil 5 video game.

“Rated M for Mature,” the commercial says.

“Is anyone who plays video games really ‘mature,'” I ask, using finger quotes to emphasize “mature.”

No reaction from the boy, a video game player himself.

“You see what I mean?” I ask him.

“No,” he says.


Check Your Facts

11 Mar 2009 /

It’s 7 p.m. and my son’s ready to make a deal . . .

“If I study for an hour,” he says, “can I go play basketball at 8?”

His mom is skeptical. “You just played Xbox for five hours,” she says.

He shakes his head vehemently. “Four-and-a-half hours,” he says.


An African-American Name

9 Dec 2008 /
NFL Street

My son needs an African-American name for a character he created in NFL Street.

“How about Kareem of Wheat?” I suggest.

He decides to go with Delondre McWreck . . .


Blame Roger Goodell

26 Dec 2007 /

My son’s explanation to his mom on why he can’t turn off Madden 2008 like she asked him to:

I can’t stop in the middle of a game. Roger Goodell has not sent me a notice that we can do that. Unless there’s a weather delay or fans throwing things on the field, which there isn’t, so that can’t happen.