Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Teaching at Girl Develop It Ottawa's Kickoff Event

Girl Develop It: "Want to learn how to code? Have a great idea? Don't be shy. Develop it."  It's exactly what the Ottawa community needs: a way to engage professional women in learning technical skills, particularly programming.  Ultimately, this might also help bring together the community of women in technology with the women near technology, and maybe blur the line between the two.

Good friend and one of the four original CU-WISE founders Serena Ngai got an Ottawa chapter of Girl Develop It started this past summer, and I couldn't help but offer my time and support to make it happen.  When we met to talk about what we should do for the first class or event, I suggested a free afternoon workshop that would not require too much of a time commitment from participants, yet still give a taste of what programming was like; hopefully participants would be itching for more and look forward to signing up for the more extensive classes to be offered later.

And so our kickoff event was born: Intro to Scratch Programming was held this past Saturday and if you go by the enthusiasm of the participants both during and after the workshop, it was a great success!

I was able to re-purpose the content I had developed for my Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences course that I teach at Carleton in the summer.  I started with a description of what exactly computer science is, emphasizing how it connects with whatever interests you might already have and why it's useful to learn even now long after school is done for some.  Then I went through some basic programming concepts in Scratch: boolean values, if and if/else statements, loops, variables, and Scratch's special broadcast functionality.  Finally, I showed how to make a game by filling a bit of code to an unfinished project and left some time for the audience to play and explore on their own.

Something I really appreciated being able to do in this setting was allow the group to test their understanding and explore Scratch a bit after every main concept I presented.  I usually asked them to do something specific but also encouraged them to go beyond that and experiment with other code to see what would happen.   This was not possible in my summer course, since not all students had a computer in front of them during lectures.  It made a huge difference in terms of audience engagement and their ability to learn: this is absolutely something I recommend that all instructors do for future Girl Develop It classes.

Like I said, I think the workshop was a success, and overall I'm very happy with how it went.  As always, there is something to improve for next time, and so here is my list of what I would have liked to do differently:
  • I must admit I put my slides together at the last minute since I knew I could reuse material from my summer course.  But this made me forget to make a backup PDF copy of the PowerPoint slides like I normally would.  When the projector didn't work on my Windows install, I had to reboot into the Mac side of my laptop and present the slides with messed up formatting.
  • I usually like to do a round of introductions among the audience to break the ice and get a feel for where everyone's coming from, but forgot to do this after we finally got our projector woes sorted out.
  • I am glad that I talked about what computer science is, but I usually get to spend more time on this, giving more practical examples.  I was worried about time so kept it pretty general.  Hopefully the main idea of how widespread CS is and how many areas it connects to came across.
  • The game I showed at the end was called Oscartime and was from a first year course taught at Harvard.  As soon as I started to go through it, I realized that it was a bit much for a three hour workshop.  I was still able to use it to point out the practical use of some of the programming concepts learned earlier, but there were a couple of things that were a bit advanced.  Though in a multi-day course I would show this game at some point, I should have shown a simpler example first.
Download the Workshop Slides

You can download my slides in one of two formats:


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