Sigcse2018 Bootstrapworld on Creativity in CS classes

I really didn't know what to expect at the Creativity, Customization, and Ownership: Game Design in Bootstrap: Algebra session. I've been a big fan of Bootstrep for years and looking at the authors, Emmanuel Schanzer's been a freind forever. I've never met Shriram Krishnamurthi in person but am looking forward to it. We've traded emails and blog comments. I'd like to consider him a friend and I certainly respect him and his work even though we frequently disagree around the edges. The third author and presenter, Kathi Fisler was new to me.

The Bootstrap program is embedded in algebra classes. In it, students use Racket (nee scheme) to reinforce math skills while building computer science skills. The big student project is a graphical game.

When designing the project, students are asked to decide on and find four resources:

  1. The background image
  2. The player image
  3. The target image
  4. The enemy image

Students are given a short amount of time to decide on and find these four images. I think it was about ten minutes and that's it. That's all the "creativity" in the assignment. After that, all the students are essentially creating the same game with different skins.

This design makes sense. You can't have students going all over the place. Constraining the assignment in this way allows teachers who might now be strong in computer science to guide the kids through the program to completion.

At the time I was thinking: I really like all of this but is it really open ended creativity and discovery with respect to math or computer science? As it turned out, Fisler addressed this point at the end of the talk in a way that made me vary happy.

Fisler went on to describe the rest of the student experience and then went on to talk about the statistics they gathered.

One big takeaway was that while all the students were essentially writing the same game varying only the graphical elements, this encouraged students to create very different themes. They also created rich stories around their games. The project might not have been "creative" with respect to the CS or Math directions but it was certainly creative in other important areas. The other takeaway was that survey's indicated all sorts of positives from the program as a whole so the project didn't seem to have suffered by having the students essentially write the same program. Participants were proud of their work, they felt their games were different from their peers and in general the experience was good.

During questions, someone asked about adding a fifth element - a projectile or missile. It turns out that at one point the program had a projectile component but that led to the vast majority of projects to be themed in very similar ways. Even though not the same, it reminded me to something Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture:

You make whatever you want. Two rules: no shooting violence and no pornography. Not because I’m opposed to those in particular, but you know, that’s been done with VR, right? [laughter] And you’d be amazed how many 19-year-old boys are completely out of ideas when you take those off the table.

At the very end, Fisler addressed my questions about creativity and discovery. She posed these questions of her own: "Do we overstate the case for creativity?" and "Is pure constructivism a win?"

I've ranted on contructivism before. It can be great but a constructivist lesson takes a knowledgeable educator and a lot of time, preparation, and effort. It's a big ask for, say, a high school teacher who's already taking home hours of work every evening. Too often I've seen the following "contructivist" model instead:

  • Take an isntructor that doesn't know their craft, the content, or niether.
  • Let the kids play with stuff.
  • Show off the couple of autodidacts that figure it out as success stories.

I'll rant more about this "model" with respect to the new buzz word "lead learner" at some point in the future.

On the creativity side, it's important but there are also times for the instructor to lead and for guidelines to be followed. We want to foster creativity but that doesn't mean that it's 100% creativity 100% of the time. Education is like life, a balance. The Bootstrap program had to constrain the CS and math learning but allowed for creativity in other areas. It's smart and it's a win.

I still want to meet Shriram in person one day and now also Kathi Fisler. I didn't know what to expect walking in but I left the talk reminded of why I'm such a fan of Emmanuel, his team, and their work.


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