Education Programming women in computer science

Experimenting with a Visual, Activity-Based Curriculum

When I left Ottawa, I had to find the new me to run my Processing Workshop. His name is Ali and he’s awesome. He’s had the idea to write up the ideas into a paper, so we’re working on that at the moment, but it occurred to me that I didn’t write much about it here.

I will definitely post more as this project progresses, but for now I’m going to write up some of the design decisions that I think make this different. Comments welcome – it’ll help us write a better paper – or decide it’s not worth the effort!


Entirely Visual

This started when I was teaching programming in the US. Kids taking the other courses were taking home video games, even 3D ones, and so my little programmers weren’t overly excited by the idea of taking home a text-based hangman – and, well, who can blame them?

So we came to an agreement – we designed something together and I coded the GUI and each of them coded their own back-end. I developed more such frameworks the following summer and eventually got asked to develop the curriculum for all of the US.

There, I introduced early concepts using Processing (a language and editor for teaching and artists – makes it really easy to create visual applets) as a library within Eclipse. Some students would code their final projects in Processing, but they had the option of a (Swing) framework. I negotiated my contract such that whilst they owned what I wrote, I licensed them the code I wrote (and retained the IP).

The latest curriculum is designed for one day workshops. Eclipse is an extremely complex and powerful program and has a steep learning curve. The Processing editor is very simple and easy to use and removes some of the syntax necessary to create an applet, so we use that instead.

Every exercise has a visual outcome. Students can compare what they have produced to the one in the instructions. This provides visual honesty that is lacking in text-based programming applications. By working visually, we turn the program from a “black-box” where the student often does not understand the relationship between the input and output… into a colourful one.


I remember learning to program, and I noticed this pattern:

  1. Introduce concept
  2. Provide contrived example.

I’ve taught like this too. But – why? That’s not how I code. That looks more like:

  1. Evaluate problem.
  2. Apply solution, that I know/look up/invent (for more complex problem).

Contrived examples are 1) boring, and 2) patronizing. Instead, we present things that the student might want to do, for example – repeat things, or sometimes do one thing, sometimes do another, and provide code with an explanation.

For a one-day workshop, we cannot expect the students to memorize concepts and it seems unreasonable to expect them to be interested in doing so. Our focus is on showing them how we can solve problems using code and why that is fun.

Open Source

Everything about our workshop is Open Sourced. The content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. Similarly, the Processing library is licensed under the LGPL. So students and teachers can distribute their code without concern, but more importantly – students and their teachers can download the software at home or at school free of charge, and continue to explore the modules in their own time.


A low ratio of students to TAs (4 students to each TA) was a key part of the strategy for the workshop. Being stuck, and having to wait, is extremely frustrating to a student. Also, more one-on-one help from a TA makes it possible for students to tackle more challenging projects.

I was extremely picky about TAs and interviewed them with technical questions, not just experience questions. I was looking for fast problem solving, and good clear communication of their solution (and in general).

With the short time available for the workshop it was really important that the TAs could fix problems quickly. The key was to keep students moving through the content and feeling like they were progressing – the number one purpose of the workshop was to inspire them to take computer science, rather than to memorize concepts.

Communication was really important – firstly, because a more effective communicator will teach students concepts faster. Secondly, to break the stereotype of CompSci students as socially inept and not fun to hang out with. I was really looking for people who I felt would be good role models for the students. This included not restricting TAing to graduate students, who often code infrequently anyway. For the first workshop, I hired 4 graduate students and two talented undergraduate students as TAs. They were all fantastic. Our second workshop was organized with less notice, but rather than compromise on the quality of TAs we had a slightly higher ratio (5-6 students per TA). Ideally, we will go with the lower ratio but this ratio was workable.


Related to the low ratio of students to TAs, was the self-directed nature of the workshop. Because the curriculum is available online, there is no need to share printed copies, or wait for the instructor to explain things. Whilst the first couple of modules were necessary to give students familiarity with Processing, students with prior programming experience could quickly skip ahead to more advanced examples. Where possible the modules were written to be stand-alone, so no specific path was necessary. Having a good selection of modules meant that students didn’t have to work on the same “final” thing as their friends, if they didn’t want to.

Inclusive of Interests and Levels

Processing is designed as a tool for artists, and there are several modules involving creating fractals and showing students how to create patterns. Creating games is often used to engage kids and teenagers in wanting to learn to code, but by allowing this alternative, artistic track, we hope to broaden the reach of our workshop. But, if they want, there’s a framework for a simplified game of Pacman. We plan to add more games, such as BrickBreaker, over the next few months (subject to funding).

Some students come with prior programming knowledge, and others do not. We will sometimes run a workshop for multiple schools simultaneously, and we don’t know what background knowledge the students have. This is in addition to the usual issues of different abilities! We have a mix of modules of varying challenges; for example, the most tricky parts of the fractals and patterns is the math, so students less comfortable writing code can work on those. An open-ended attitude means that there is always additional challenges, for example – animation! Students with prior knowledge of programming will often define their own challenge, or even look elsewhere on the internet and explore the 3D capabilities of Processing.


Honestly, I think computer science tends to be really appallingly taught. I don’t pretend to know how we should do it, but we need to do better. It’s great if people want to use, or critique what I’ve created, but the big thing is – I think it’s important that we have a conversation about how to make CS more engaging, whilst still teaching the skills that students need. They need to be able to code, not just write Java with the help of Eclipse.

You can find the workshop here

3 replies on “Experimenting with a Visual, Activity-Based Curriculum”

“Honestly, I think computer science tends to be really appallingly taught. I don’t pretend to know how we should do it, but we need to do better”

I completely agree. There is not enough research on how to really do it better though Mark Guzdial at Georgia Tech is doing some great stuff.

Visual/Graphical is always better. The attraction of textbased that hooked me 40 years ago is long gone. Likewise I agree that you want students focused on the back end, that is done with the input rather than how to get the input or display the output. That stuff can come later.

My question is what is the follow up of a one day workshop? What does the next (or rather first full) course look like? Can you get students to see the world changing nature of computer science and that it is more than pretty pictures? Not that pretty pictures are not enough motivation for some students. They motivated me plenty as a student. But we need to make sure they see the larger potential and practical nature. This doesn’t mean boring contrived “business programs” of course. But at least some presentation of the diversity of problems that CS can address.

Thanks Alfred. We’re writing up our proposal/paper at the moment and looking at the research (Mark’s blog is great) to ground it in that, but this seems a little contrived when the truth is that I just listened to what the kids were telling me they wanted, and thought about what would have made my own experience better.

There is so much inertia. I TA’d the introductory CS course for business students and it was appalling. This is such a missed opportunity – to take a bunch of kids who might not have indicated CS as their preference but grew up in the digital age… and make them hate it. The curriculum was outdated, irrelevant, and boring.

When 3D video games are taken for granted, the concept that a program can even exist without a GUI is not well grasped – I explained this distinction to someone yesterday. We have a generation that is digitally competent but computationally illiterate. That is a problem.

Following up, I also have a talk called “Art, Life and Programming” which is about how technology gives us new ways to create and distribute art, and how technology is changing our lives. I’ve given it 5 times now – twice in French and three times in English. Slides and commentary – – the whole purpose is to get kids excited about how programmers can change the world.

I’d love to take these ideas and turn them into a full week’s worth of material. We’re trying to get more funding from the university to develop more modules and it’s going to be translated into French aswell. After that – how can we scale it? Get other people using it?

Still working on those questions 🙂 Suggestions welcome!

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