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C'est la Z

Quarter Century Courses

I was talking in our Curriculum Development class last week about the courses I've created over the years. From the first computer graphics course to the current teacher education courses. JonAlf pointed out that we missed an "important" occasion last spring - the twenty fifth offering of my computer graphics class at Stuy. I haven't taught it in almost 10 years but it's been running continuously for a quarter century since it first ran back in the mid 90s. Systems will hit that mark this year and the intro course I designed a couple of years from now.

That's pretty cool.

Looking back at all the courses I've designed and taught it's interesting to see what I got right, what I got wrong, and why. Some courses evolved slowly over time. The intro course fits that bill. On the other hand, Systems had a complete reboot a few years in and has been reasonably stable since. Interestingly enough Graphics has probably been the most stable over the years. That's not to say that it hasn't been tweaked here and there but overall, it's largely the same now as it was a quarter century ago. It's been re-evaluated many times but it just turns out that when I was teaching it I felt that it was still hitting the right notes and my successor seems to feel similarly.

Funny because graphics was designed with the least thought of all of my courses. I probably didn't feel that way at the time, but it's true. I had only been teaching around 5 year - a beginner at best and didn't really know what I was doing. Even 10 years in you're still an advanced beginner in terms of teaching. Most teachers, if they don't burn out, hit there stride at 15 - 20 and after that become truly experienced.

I basically created graphics because I was teaching 4 APCS/AB classes and one geometry and hated grading proofs!!!! I needed to create one more CS class. I decided on graphics because I knew I could teach it and thought the students might enjoy it. Systems was created using similarly deep contemplations. I got better and spent much more time and effort designing future courses.

For the graphics class I had a few choices to make but not many. The students mostly only knew Pascal from APCS so the language wasn't an issue like it would become later on and since we were working on DOS machines running Turbo Pascal there wasn't any option to use any fancy library like OpenGL. The course basically started with the ability to draw a point and then went though:

  • lines
  • lines in 3D and 3D transformations
  • polygons (triangles)
  • A motion description language interpreter (stack and tree based shape hierarchies)
  • lighting and shading
  • ray tracing

The motion description language piece had an entire unit that was really an intro to compilers / interpreters.

In retrospect, the course really did make sense. It was taught to second term seniors so it was a terminal course. It combined the programming, algorithms and data structures from APCS, math they did in trig, precalc (and baby calc), and a bit of physics. It as also project based and they wrote programs that made pretty pictures so that helped stave off senioritis.

While the course has remained largely the same, there has been some evolution. When Systems students started learning C we ended up supporting that as well in graphics and now the course is more language agnostic. We also played with topics and unit length. We spend less time on the compiler piece now and treat that more like a black box and have at times looked at additional topics like texture mapping. There's also been a good deal of work put in to safety nets and scaffolding. When you have a course where the main assessment is one BIG semester long project you've got to make sure students don't end up falling into a hole they can't climb out of.

It's not a surprise that the first couple of courses I designed - graphics and systems were somewhat arbitrary. Graphics turned out to be a solid design and just needed some fine tuning but Systems got a complete reboot. Over the years, I learned more about curriculum design and feel pretty comfortable designing new experiences now. Of course, this is thirty years into my career as a teacher.

Maybe I'll talk about the design of other classes here in the future but for now, you can look at one of my first student's graphics project and read about it here.

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