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Forgetting how to be inexperienced November 8, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, teaching.
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I learned to program when I was 9.  My grandmother gave us an old TI-35 console that hooked up to a TV and a tape deck to record the programs.  (Yes, as in cassette tapes…)  She failed to get any games or other programs to run, so in order to get anything useful out of it, I had to learn to program.

It was a huge disappointment for me: I’d really wanted an Apple IIc so I could play Oregon trail on the phosphorescent green screen like I did at school.  On the other than, with 25+ years of knowledge and experience, I think it was the best gift I could’ve ever gotten.  I can make a living programming…but I can’t playing Oregon Trail.

My goal this week was to pass on some of that appreciation of programming to my students.  (I guess I can almost say next generation since my own son is just a couple years behind my students.  That’s sad.)  My informal polling in class has made me realize that only about a quarter of my students have ever programmed in any language ever.

I could have understood this when I was in college…not everyone had access to computers.  It seems like the ubiquity of computers doesn’t necessarily mean one will necessarily have experience using them other than at an apps level.

So I decided they should probably get at least a cursory knowledge of a useful programming language.  Matlab seemed like a good choice because I know several of the upper-level classes use it.  And let’s face it…once you learn to program in one language, it’s easier to go to another.

I found an excellent tutorial.  I liked it because it went through things in a fairly basic manor, which I was sure my students could understand.  It also had exercises.

Unfortunately, my mistake was thinking my students would be able to read, do the examples, and get a decent understanding of how matlab worked.  That’s more or less how I learned it.

Of course…I had already learned other languages when I decided I should learn Matlab.  (It wasn’t around when I was 9, you see…)

I was very surprised to find that the most difficult concept for the students to get was how to write an m-file.  That is, they didn’t understand that you could write a series of commands in the file and then execute the whole file simply by typing the m-file name in the command window.  They wanted to print out the command window or copy and paste their results into the m-file from the command window.

I have to admit that I was impressed with their creativity…but confounded by all the strange things they were attempting.

Finally, I went through a five-minute explanation of the differences between the command window and an m-file, and how the two work.  That seemed to clarify what needed to be done for many of the students.  When I took this approach with my second class, they seemed very calm and significantly less frustrated than the first class.

I really hoped this would be a positive introduction to programming for the students, but I can tell I’ve managed to make it frustrating for one group.  I guess it’s really hard to put myself in their place and figure out where they’re going to have problems.  It’s only when I throw some of them in and see how they react that I can change my approach to fit their needs.

Teaching any class for the first time is a frustrating experience.

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Comments»

1. fargojones - November 8, 2011

I always was jealous of those who could program. I think of it this way, I know how to watch TV, and understand a tiny bit how it works, but do I know how to program or make one? No. Likewise, I grew up using computers, but never had the faintest how people made the programs I used, or what they made them in. I doubt typing in programming to a word document would have cut it. I guess what I’m saying is that you were given quite a gift to learn about it so early.

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2. DRo - November 11, 2011

Can you tell us the name or link to the tutorial you liked?

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mareserinitatis - November 11, 2011

I’m sorry! I totally meant to put a link to it and forgot.

It’s the interactive matlab course at Eindhoven: http://www.imc.tue.nl/

For my students (many of whom have not had much or any calc), I’ve assigned them chapters 1, 4, and 6.

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3. FrauTech - November 13, 2011

It does seem like the newer generations program less. I suspect this is because when we were kids we had old computers that didn’t necessarily have very many games on them. We had a TRS-80 and then later a Windows 3.1 machine. It was actually on the Windows 3.1 machine that we picked up programming for it on Basic. At the time you couldn’t necessarily afford a lot of games, and a lot of what we wanted to play wasn’t even out there. I think our imaginations exceeded what was available to us. Now there are more games than your brain can think up. So current teens don’t feel the need to fill the gap. (Which reminds me, why did my parents have a big, thick textbook on Basic on the house? Neither of them could program, my mom could barely use a Word Processor at the time and my Dad wouldn’t learn how to use a computer for many years more. Oh well, life’s little mysteries).

Maybe you should have taught your students with Basic. While I agree Matlab is more common, I think it’s less intuitive. Even the language most TI-82s and 83s use is more Basic-like than Matlab.

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