GetSET: Teaching Javascript to high school girls (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 09 Aug 2008

GetSET: Teaching Javascript to high school girls

Every summer I volunteer as an instructor for a one-day Javascript programming class at the GetSET summer technology camp for high school girls. GetSET is a great program run by the Society of Women Engineers. it's intended for minority girls from relatively poor neighborhoods, and the camp is free to the girls (thanks to some great corporate sponsors). They're selected through a competitive interview process so they're all amazingly smart and motivated, and it's always rewarding being involved.

Teaching programming in one day to people with no programming background at all is challenging, of course. You can't get into any of the details you'd like to cover, like style, or debugging techniques. By the time you get through if-else, for and while loops, some basic display methods, the usual debugging issues like reading error messages, and typographical issues like "Yes, uppercase and lowercase really are different" and "No, sorry, that's a colon, you need a semicolon", it's a pretty full day and the students are saturated.

I got drafted as lead presenter several years ago, by default by virtue of being the only one of the workshop leaders who actually programs in Javascript. For several years I'd been asking for a chance to rewrite the course to try to make it more fun and visual (originally it used a lot of form validation exercises), and starting with last year's class I finally got the chance. I built up a series of graphics and game exercises (using some of Sara Falamaki's Hangman code, which seemed perfect since she wrote it when she was about the same age as the girls in the class) and it went pretty well. Of course, we had no idea how fast the girls would go or how much material we could get through, so I tried to keep it flexible and we adjusted as needed.

Last year went pretty well, and in the time since then we've exchanged a lot of email about how we could improve it. We re-ordered some of the exercises, shifted our emphasis in a few places, factored some of the re-used code (like windowWidth()) into a library file so the exercise files weren't so long, and moved more of the visual examples earlier.

I also eliminated a lot of the slides. One of the biggest surprises last year was the "board work". I had one exercise where the user clicks in the page, and the student has to write the code to figure out whether the click was over the image or not. I had been nervous about that exercise -- I considered it the hardest of the exercises. You have to take the X and Y coordinates of the mouse click, the X and Y coordinates of the image (the upper left corner of the <div> or <img> tag), and the size of the image (assumed to be 200x200), and turn that all into a couple of lines of working Javascript code. Not hard once you understand the concepts, but hard to explain, right?

I hadn't made a slide for that, so we went to the whiteboard to draw out the image, the location of the mouse click, the location of the image's upper left corner, and figure out the math ... and the students, who had mostly been sitting passively through the heavily slide-intensive earlier stuff, came alive. They understood the diagram, they were able to fill in the blanks and keep track of mouse click X versus image X, and they didn't even have much trouble turning that into code they typed into their exercise. Fantastic!

Remembering that, I tried to use a lot fewer slides this year. I felt like I still needed to have slides to explain the basic concepts that they actually needed to use for the exercises -- but if there was anything I thought they could figure out from context, or anything that was just background, I cut it. I tried for as few slides as possible between exercises, and more places where we could elicit answers from the students. I think we still have too many slides and not enough "board work" -- but we're definitely making progress, and this year went a lot better and kept them much better engaged. We're considering next year doing the first several exercises on the board first, then letting them type it in to their own copies to verify that it works.

We did find we needed to leave code examples visible: after showing slides saying something like "Ex 7: Write a loop that writes a line of text in each color", I had to back up to the previous slide where I'd showed what the code actually looked like. I had planned on their using my "Javascript Quick Reference" handout for reference and not needing that information on the slides; but in fact, I think they were confused about the quickref and most never even opened it. Either that information needs to be in the handout, or it needs to be displayed on the screen as they work, or I have to direct them to the quickref page explicitly ("Now turn to page 3 in ...") or put that information in the exercises.

The graphical flower exercises were a big hit this year (I showed them early and promised we'd get to them, and when we did, just before lunch, several girls cheered) and, like last year, some of the girls who finished them earlier decided on their own that they wanted to change them to use other images, which was also a big hit. Several other girls decided they wanted more than 10 flowers displayed, and others hit on the idea of changing the timeout to be a lot shorter, which made for some very fun displays. Surprisingly, hardly anyone got into infinite loops and had to kill the browser (always a potential problem with javascript, especially when using popups like alert() or prompt()).

I still have some issues I haven't solved, like what to do about semicolons and braces. Javascript is fairly agnostic about them. Should I tell the girls that they're required? (I did that this year, but it's confusing because then when you get to "if" statements you have to explain why that's different.) Not mention them at all? (I'm leaning toward that for next year.)

And it's always a problem figuring out what the fastest girls should do while waiting for the rest to finish. This year, in addition to trying to make each exercise shorter, we tried having the girls work on them in groups of two or three, so they could help each other. It didn't quite work out that way -- they all worked on their own copies of the exercises but they did seem to collaborate more, and I think that's the best balance. We also encourage the ones who finish first to help the girls around them, which mostly they do on their own anyway.

And we really do need to find a better editor we can use on the Windows lab machines instead of Wordpad. Wordpad's font is too small on the projection machine, and on the lab machines it's impossible for most of us to tell the difference between parentheses, brackets and braces, which leads to lots of time-wasting subtle bugs. Surely there's something available for Windows that's easy to use, freely distributable, makes it easy to change the font, and has parenthesis and brace matching (syntax highlighting would be nice too). Well, we have a year to look for one now.

All in all, we had a good day and most of the girls gave the class high marks. Even the ones who concluded "I learned I shouldn't be a programmer because it takes too much attention to detail" said they liked the class. And we're fine with that -- not everybody wants to be a programmer, and the point isn't to force them into any specific track. We're happy if we can give them an idea of what computer programming is really like ... then they'll decide for themselves what they want to be.

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[ 11:54 Aug 09, 2008    More education | permalink to this entry ]