Huge props to kindergarten teachers

Teaching kindergarteners is like herding kittens
Teaching kindergarteners is like herding kittens

I’m completely exhausted. I had the pleasure today of explaining a little bit about computers and algorithms to some kindergarteners, and it just about wiped me out :-).

Timna Wyckoff (one of our biologists and mother of a kindergartener) arranged to have all the local kindergarten kids comes to the science building for 90 minutes to learn a little bit about science. They were divided up into groups of about twelve, and each group spent about 30 minutes at three of the six stations we’d set up.

I talked with them about their experience using computers at school (mostly “playing games”) and how the computer did things like draw pictures on the screen. (We determined that it wasn’t elves or fairies or tiny mice with little glasses and hats that took coffee breaks when you turned the computer off.) We then talked about how computers are machines, like their fridge or a car, and let them look inside a couple of old boxes destined for the scrap heap. This led to a bit on how computers are general purpose machines instead of single purpose machines (“Can you drive your fridge to the store?”), and how what the do is determined by the program they run. It turns out that computers are in fact machines specifically designed to follow lists of instructions, and programs are lists of instructions created by computer scientists that tell the computer how to do certain things (like draw dinosaurs on the screen). We then headed into a semi-tangential (but concrete for 5 and 6 year olds) discussion of recipes as a instructions, and people as machines for following those instructions. Finally, if and as time allowed (and it varied quite a bit across my three groups), they all got numbers, stood in a line, and pretended they were a computer running through the bubble sort algorithm. (Yeah, bubble sort. Don’t shoot me – it’s easy to run through with little kids.)

I spent a total of 90 minutes doing this three times, plus some setup at the beginning and tear down at the end, and I’m exhausted. If nothing else, this reinforced my belief that a good teacher of young kids is a real treasure. These are bright, enthusiastic kids, but they don’t always focus real well, and my short morning is enough to send me scurrying back to teaching adults. (To be honest, my students don’t always focus well, but they’re much less likely to distract everyone around them in the process.)

This was my first time doing this, and my little script was an amalgam of lots of ideas from KK, Timna, and WeatherGrrrl, and various students and alum responding to my request for ideas on Twitter. Many thanks to all of them for their ideas and feedback!

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Buried deep enough I’ve got sand in my mouth

I’m not dead, just swamped. It might get better. Please?

Green, Yellow, Red
Creative Commons License photo credit: brianwallace
Three different not-in-Morris people were kind enough to ask today in one form or another if I was dead. To quote one

All OK? You’ve been soooooo quiet.

Many, many thanks for asking. It’s nice to be missed :-).

And yes, all the big things are OK, even if some of the details are a little stressful at the moment.

My wife and son are still amazing people, UMM is still home to some incredibly cool folks at all levels, and institutional corn dogs at the Student Activities Fair remain one of my favorite start-of-the-school-year rituals.

On the other hand, I’m still scrambling with some school stuff like syllabi and planning — I’m seriously crap at almost all of the mechanics of teaching, which makes my career choice unfortunate at times. (At least I like my job, though, which puts me way ahead of lots of folks.)

Computer Science at UMM is also really swamped because a search failed and we’ve got 3 faculty doing what 5 faculty (actually 6 people, two of which were half time) were doing four months ago. We canceled a couple of things, and moved a few other things around, so I think it will all work out fine, but it’s a challenge.

And on top of that, it turns out that I have arthritis in my neck that is causing my vertebrae to poke at my spinal cord in ways that express themselves annoyingly in my left arm. I got a steroid shot in my neck last week up in Fergus Falls that was (I think) helping. Unfortunately I pulled an almost-all-nighter night before last doing course prep, and may have undone much of that progress. Damn. It would be useful if I remembered that I’m no longer 18 at key moments… On the neat side, though, I’ve got the MRI images, so I have lots of cool pictures of my spine which I can give to Len Keeler‘s physics course on medical imaging. So there will be a bunch of physics students marveling at what a complete mess my back is, and getting college credit for their trouble!

So in short, everything big is all still fine. Some of the details are a pain, however, and that tends to draw energy from all the “optional” pieces of my life (blogging, Flickr, people who aren’t standing in my office door looking confused or unhappy or just glad to see me again). Hence a fair amount of Twitter, but very little that moves any closer to the paragraph form.

Sorry, and thanks for asking. Hopefully things will settle down in the next week or two. If you can’t find me in my office, I might be taking a nap on the couch in the computer science lounge.

The rowdy folks at the back of the bus

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