Computer class activities?
July 6, 2008 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Activities for weeklong 7th grade computer class?

I am teaching a computer/technology class for inner city middle school students in a few weeks and need some new ideas. The goal for this class isn't to give the students a large amount of new skills, but rather to acquaint them with the power of computers and give them a new level of comfort with technology. I have about 90 minutes a day with each group of kids. I have some activities planned on GIS with Google Earth, a session with Photoshop, and a session on audio/music with GarageBand. What other activities can the Hive recommend to round out the week?
posted by prefrontal to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I remember a little program which was supposed to be basically a introduction to programing which was a little frog or turtle that you would "program" to move around(spin, move forward, move backward, hop). The programing is like BASIC:
10 spin right
20 more forward

I don't know what it was called and a quick google didn't turn it up but it shouldn't be too hard to find if you might want an introduction to how computers are programed as one of your days.
posted by humanawho at 4:41 PM on July 6, 2008

This might sound silly and obvious, but how to perform a simple google search. I am always surprised by the number of people I encounter (even people who have grown up with multiple computers in the home) who are completely clueless when it comes to finding a bit of information (for instance, that you can access yellow pages-type info right there on the internets).

Along that same vein, Wikipedia might be a neat thing to show them, too.
posted by phunniemee at 4:42 PM on July 6, 2008

You're thinking of LOGO, humanawho :)
posted by MadamM at 4:46 PM on July 6, 2008


Do crop circles. Or rhumbuses. Rhombi? BE the interpreter, danny. Give 'em a logo program and make them BE the turtle.

Just sayin'
posted by stubby phillips at 4:49 PM on July 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm just a pessimistic young person, but you're most likely going to be battling against all these kids spending the whole thing on MySpace and taking pictures on Photo Booth. So I sure hope you have Remote Desktop privileges on all these machines.

As for activities, show them some basic HTML coding (which goes hand in hand with the MySpace problem). Show them basic markup so they might do something other than copy and paste god-awful templates from random websites.
posted by cgomez at 4:51 PM on July 6, 2008

Definitely do a session on searching. Also...

Setting up a Facebook profile and how to set the privacy.
How to set up anti-virus and firewall.
Partitioning your HD and installing Linux.

Might want to reconsider GarageBand- Macs are still the minority of market-share overall, likely even more so among inner-city kids.

I'd also skip programming- LOGO won't impress a 13-year-old.
posted by mkultra at 4:58 PM on July 6, 2008

Some actual CS. The power of a computer is not that it can display pretty pictures (a TV can do that), not that it can present information in depth (a book can do that), not even that it holds lots of data (so did counting houses, the Domesday Book, Homer's head).

The power of te computer is that it is one machine that can be told by its user to become any machine (well, any machine that we know how to make).

The photoshop is a great example, because it shows what a computer excels at: transforming data from one isomorphism to another. Ideally, you'll want to present this as reversible transformations, and at least hint at the math behind each transform. This will also give you a chance to hint at composition of functions by presenting initial image -> first transform -> second transform.

Be careful to explain that these transform are not "magic" -- that people just like your students decided that a certain transform would be useful, and then figured out how to do it.

Then mention the difference between lossless and loss-y transformations by examining savign images as bitmaps or jpegs, and get the students to adduce the pros and cons of of each.

Move from there into simple programming, e.g., of a macro in photoshop that applies several transforms in sequence.

The point is not to make all your students into programmers, but to let them know that they are the master of the computer, that it is a device they command to reach their goals, and not that it is their master, forcing them to memorize "you can only do this in Word if you've already done this". Far too often, people get frustrated with computers because the device that should serve them makes them a servant of some bad and arbitrarily designed user interface.

Discuss, at least briefly, recursion, and apply it to their lives (language, for example, makes heavy use of rucrsive structures; so does any fractal geometry).

If your students are primed for it by a Socratic discussion of how they might search for a word (a "string") in a document (a longer string), a presentation of the Boyer-Moore strung search algorithm will blow them away. Forget the preprocessing details of Boyer-Moore, just hit the high-points and leave them with the stunning take-home message that to find a string in a document, you don't need to examine every letter ("character") in the document.

This naturally leads into a discussion of Big-O notation and the space and time costs of algorithms. Don't get bogged down, but drive home the point of why n2 is expensive. This is as easy as comparing the length of a square to its area.

Which leads into Cartesian co-ordinates or Cartesian joins in SQL, but rather than go there, how about a little bit of Venn diagrams and sets? Fun stuff, especially if you present it by asking the kids what sets they are members of (or not) and what supersets and subsets are in those sets.

Which leads into attrubutes and predicates, which leads to object oriented programming or to SQL. Go with OO, mention C++ is used in programming many of the games they've played on PCs or gameboys, and discuss that humorous story about the Australian military simulation and the kangaroos with rocket launchers for how OO can be misapplied.

Well, perhaps this gets a bit thick, but my point is there are som many places to go with this, and almost all of it can be fun. There are some (more sober, and suited to 12 year olds) suggestions here.
posted by orthogonality at 4:59 PM on July 6, 2008

along the lines of a google search/research session: you could make some sort of scavenger hunt out of it. have a list of questions like "what was the name of the artist who sang such and such a song?" "how many faces on a truncated icosohedron?" "who was the first president of zimbabwe?" etc. you could also give them quotations or song lyrics and have them compile information about the person who said/wrote it/or the piece of work it comes from and give a little report, they could work in groups. with your middle school demographic, i'd suggest unusual historical figures, not just the same people they always hear about in school. maybe even activists/revolutionary/artist/innovator types, if the goal of the class is empowerment.
posted by dahliachewswell at 5:21 PM on July 6, 2008

I think everything past macros in Photoshop (which I think is a great idea to demonstrate the gist of how software works) is going to be over their heads.
posted by mkultra at 5:22 PM on July 6, 2008

When I was the same age, I went to summer computer camp (1 week), I learned how to program my own horse racing game in BASIC (amongst other things) -- it rocked my freaking world. It showed me I could take absolutely nothing and make something.

don't gyp these kids. ++ to the guy who said to teach them actual CS. Don't fool them into thinking that Google is the internet.

-- To all the guys who said kids won't be impressed with programming. I sure as hell was.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 5:28 PM on July 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

This might sound incredibly boring, but I would have them search for jobs on the internet, write a resume and cover letter (find some templates on word or the internet), and maybe fill out some online applications.

If you have more time teach them the fundamentals of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

That's the power of computers, yo!
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 5:43 PM on July 6, 2008

mkultra writes "I think everything past macros in Photoshop (which I think is a great idea to demonstrate the gist of how software works) is going to be over their heads."

For some, sure. Probably for most.

But teaching is about opening doors, showing new worlds to be conquered, sweeping vistas (uh, no OS pun intended) and broad sun-lit uplands to be explored; it's less about whether the student gets there, than about the student knowing these mental places, these possibilities, exist at all.

I remember very little of all I've been taught, and even less is applicable to my daily life and daily work. But it's knowing the winder that is out there, athat can be grasped if I try hard enough, that gives me a reason to keep going and learning.
posted by orthogonality at 5:51 PM on July 6, 2008

Give them a lesson in computing privacy and Internet privacy.

If you are using Windows, and they have normal user privileges, clue them in to how much data is stored in their profile folder in Documents and Settings. Go to "Tools-->Folder Options" and show all the hidden folders. Then let them see that Windoze is storing their browsing history, caching websites, shortcuts to docs, cookies etc. If they can access Event Viewer, even more. You can the seque into general safe computing principles

I teach a general computer class to HS freshman and they are always blown away when they learn how little privacy they have, especially those that share computers at home.
posted by TDIpod at 6:17 PM on July 6, 2008

Give them a database full of some actual information they might be interested in. Maybe sports scores, record or movie sales figures, ratings for the most popular TV shows, etc. Have them use the database program to sort out something useful out of it, such as making a chart of the box office receipts of a couple movies over the course of the year, list of all of last season's baseball games won by more than 5 points, etc. Show them how to use the filtering/sorting/graphing functions and let them play around with them.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 6:50 PM on July 6, 2008

One thing I've done with kids around 9th grade is to teach them how to count in binary on their fingers. Yes, it gets giggly sticky when you reach four, but you'll get at least 1 kid who internalizes the whole process and stops counting in base 1[sic].

One way to work on this is to only show one hand - you can count to 31 (25 - 1). Then see if you can get them to figure out how high they can count on all fingers without actually having to count that high. This is a good leap into other discussions.

My favorite intro to programming activity is to have them each write a recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (NOTE: MAKE DAMN CERTAIN YOU HAVE NOBODY WITH PEANUT ALLERGIES). Hand out 3x5's and have them write the recipe with their name. Take out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and a knife and make their sandwiches as literally and as spectacularly wrong as possible. You might want to put down a cheap plastic table cloth. Get a student to read a recipe and you follow it. For example, when a recipe inevitably says, "put peanut butter on the bread", you should slam the whole jar down on top of the loaf, squishing half of it. Then work on correcting the recipe. When you are done, you will have a spectacularly long, pedantic recipe, but that's a lot of what coding is.

Consider a discussion on what a computer can do.

I've done a lecture with older kids where we simulated TCP/IP with note cards. I gave each kid a routing table (ie, who they are allowed to talk to) and game them routing instructions and sent a few simultaneous messages to several students that demanded replies on the back of the cards. Each message was numbered in the order it was sent. Packets went out. Packets came back. Everyone touched a card and the replies got through - just in a different order than what I sent. Ta-da: simulated internet.

And if you're tempted to teach them how to create basic web pages - consider instead teaching them to write programs that create the web pages for them (ie, cgi scripts or the like). That is WAY cooler than a static page.
posted by plinth at 7:23 PM on July 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

If by "inner city" we are supposed to read "living below the poverty line" I would build in some take-aways for the end of the week. You want to avoid, as much as possible, an introduction to a whole world they may not have reliable access to in the immediate future.

So, if they make images in PS, let them each print their favourite at the end of the session. If they write code, print out the code. Assuming one writes songs or whatever in Garage Band (sorry, not a mac person, or a music person) print the music out. Then give them each a folder with all their accomplishments on the last day.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:01 AM on July 7, 2008

I've had to explain different parts of the basics so many times to so many people...

Some cool computer related activities:

1) Inside a computer
Take apart a computer and pass around the parts, explaining what the part does. Show a motherboard and explain how it's the backbone, and how things plug into it. Show what happens with the parts when a web page shows up on a screen... (the web page

2) Keyboard tricks
Have them open notepad and type in something silly, and show them keyboard tricks like control-C (copy), control-V (paste), Alt-tab (Switch between windows), WindowsKey-D (show desktop), alt-D (highlight URL bar), alt-T (open a new browser tab)

3) Internet cloud -- getting a web page
Draw an internet cloud with a picture of a user, the cable line outside the house, and an internet cloud with servers in buildings. Show that the webpage lives on a server in a building, and what happens when you open google and get a page.

4) Explain IP / DNS?
show how there are machines (DNS machines) - no need to even talk about the word "DNS" but instead how every place on the internet has a number (an IP) and how machines see that you looked for "" and that it changes it to a number (like a house address), and gets the page --- Use the house address / postal mail analogy

5) Searching in google -- using quotes to keep phrases together

6) Research a subject on wikipedia
posted by albatross5000 at 6:51 AM on July 7, 2008

Game Maker seems like the type of programming environment where at least some of the students could go from scratch to create something that's impressive and fun in a couple of weeks.

Let students collaborate in groups and play to their individual strengths and passions since even simple programming won't appeal to everyone. Encourage them to combine skills from earlier lessons (photoshop, Garage Band, etc...) to create content and teach some project development skills at the same time. Do some lead in with real examples of the human terrain and human roles that go into game dev.

Group work in public education is always, always, always "let's do a busywork presentation where one person works and everybody else just reads a few lines," but real work environments mean playing to individual strengths, true collaboration and communication. Every student will learn a different lesson and that's okay, because from food service to video game development to health care and social services, strong, collaborative work environments play to individual strengths. And if they never really grokked the lesson on Photoshop? In the real world you ask for help and give credit where it's due.
posted by Skwirl at 11:15 AM on July 7, 2008

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