Tom Harris

## Computer Programming – The Rules of the Game

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A basis of a vector space is a set of vectors in that space that can be used as coordinates for it. [1]

I just read Dan Meyer‘s quick review of the Graspable Math tool. While I did briefly investigate Graspable Math, and also glanced at Desmos, the tool where Dan is head of teaching, what really struck me was how Dan’s writing shows him to be “on the inside” of math teaching and learning. As I am too. That is, there’s a room called “math”, both of us are inside it, and we’re familiar with the rules of the game.

As I love computer programming and am always looking for new ways to teach it, the question arose in my mind: what is the minimal set of constructs to teach students so that they can take off from there and learn the rest of computer programming, in any language, pretty much by themselves?

I did a quick search for “minimal constructs of programming” and found Software Design & Development: Programming Constructs (pdf) from The High School of Dundee in Scotland. Nice and clear, but according to the table of contents, roughly 30 topics. That feels like too many to be minimal.

When faced with the question of how to teach, I usually first turn back to myself – how do I learn? That answer is not likely to be the best or complete answer, because most students are not me. (A valuable lesson for teachers, that I struggle to keep in mind!) But it’s an OK start, and often it’s all I have.

When I learn a new programming language, what constructs do I look for?

• Variables (scalars, vectors; and assignment – same “=” sign means something very different from math)
• Operators (may look very different in, say, Python vs APL vs AWK)
• Conditionals
• Loops
• Input/Output
• Functions (could be an intermediate level topic, but so important for clear code that I put it here)

Maybe also

• Classes (for object-oriented programming — question whether that’s an essential or advanced topic)

And there’s also environment and tools:

• How to edit
• How to compile (if necessary)
• How to run (both in editor and from command line — so “command line” is a concept too)
• How to interact with the program (where do I put input? where do I see output?)

The absolute minimum count of the above is 10 topics. Is that the minimum? Is that the right set? And, is it a set of topics where each one makes sense to a student who is new to computer programming? That last one is so important because (as above), my students are not me.

Thus, towards a second draft of the list, and maybe some hints to what kinds of explanations, exercises, and even learning-support tools (like the math environments mentioned at the beginning of this post, only for computer programming), I want to consider the question in some new ways. Based less on how I learn computer programming, and more on how people, even children, learn things from each other:

If computer programming were an outdoor game played at recess, and I were ten years old, how would I teach my friends the rules of the game?

If computer programming were a dance, what would be the basic steps?

Written by Tom Harris

June 12, 2018 at 12:06 pm

## Learning a New Programming Language, with Life (part 4)

While preparing a course syllabus on coding in Python, for an upcoming high school class, I remembered static analysis. I haven’t decided how soon to introduce the topic, but I thought I’d better check how my own sample program fared.

No warnings or errors from Python itself. (If there had been I would have addressed them already!).

So I installed Pylint and tried its default settings. How about that. Not zero at all!

In fact, 54 coding convention messages, 12 warnings, and 1 recommendation for refactoring.

It was easy enough to clean up whitespace issues (helped to turn on “view whitespace” in my Notepad2).

And yes, many comment lines were too long. I left-justified (but indented for Python) for easy reading.

Some of the warnings are for my “TODO” comments — an extra reminder to do, or drop, next steps I’d identified earlier. Pylint message count is now down to 2 informational messages, 28 coding convention, 13 warnings, and 1 to refactor. They are valuable for my future Python learning (and teaching):

Locally disabling unused-variable (W0612) (locally-disabled)

I disabled those warnings because I know the code needs those variables. But I’ll have to explain why.

(Pylint doesn’t forget — the 2 new informational messages remind that I’ve suppressed two warnings.)

Invalid attribute name “maxRowMain” (invalid-name)

Not just that name. Most of my object names. I’ll have to find a good object-naming convention and use it.

R: 69, 4: Too many branches (13/12) (too-many-branches)

Just today I heard a Python lecturer on YouTube say, “if you’re not refactoring, you’re not learning.” Yes, that function is the longest. Not so complex, but could be simpler and easier to understand.

Attribute ‘maxRowMain’ defined outside __init__ (attribute-defined-outside-init)

A few of those also. I will have to go back and learn again about __init__: when to use it and why.

All in all, a good learning session, and direction on what I need to learn next.

Thanks to static analysis with Pylint.

Written by Tom Harris

September 2, 2015 at 10:30 pm

## Learning a New Programming Language, with Life (part 3)

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I started learning Python three days ago, as described here in part 1 and part 2.

Just two hours a day, and I’m well on my way, because here below is a working implementation of my favorite, Conway’s Game of Life, in Python.

Today I refactored to put instance-specific initializations right in the functions that needed them, and promoted parsing of command line arguments to the main program. (Future: use argparse.)

I also realized that these functions are just procedures, so I stopped trying to return meaningful values. I removed the return statements. Python supports that, and returns None.

Update:

A day later, after questions from a reader led me to review my own code, I wondered why it works even without wraparound for negative indices!

The answer: Python lists handle negative indexes gracefully.

Let’s go to the code
``` #Life.py```

#Implementation of Conway’s Game of Life
#See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Game_of_Life

#Tom Harris 22-Jul-2015
#Tom Harris 23-Jul-2015 add multiple generations and display period to main program

#Import libraries needed
import sys #for command line argument support

#Define the Life class

class Life:
….#class attributes
….#None

….#class methods
….#NOTE: Currently all procedures — no return statement, implicitly returns None
….
……..#Initialize (clear) the board of Life cells
……..self.mainBoard = []

……..#Open the file
……..initialGenerationFile = open(filename)

……..#Read from the file, line by line:
……..for line in initialGenerationFile:
…………listLine = list(line.rstrip(‘\r\n’))
…………self.mainBoard.append(listLine) #add the line, in Python list format, to the mainBoard

……..#Determine dimensions of the board after reading in
……..#WARNING: dimensions are 1 larger than largest index, since indices start at 0
……..self.maxRowMain = len(self.mainBoard)
……..self.maxColMain = len(self.mainBoard[0])

……..#Close the file
……..initialGenerationFile.close

….def displayBoard(self):
……..for rowIndex, row in enumerate(self.mainBoard):

…………for colIndex, col in enumerate(row):
…………….if self.mainBoard[rowIndex][colIndex]== “1”:
………………..print(“X”, end=”)
…………….else:
………………..print(“.”, end=”)

…………print() #print newline at end of each row

….def makeBoardCurrent(self): #TODO: Think of a better name — means to copy from the next-generation workingBoard to mainBoard
……..self.mainBoard = self.workingBoard
……..
….def calculateNextGeneration(self):
……..#Calculate next generation on workingBoard based on mainBoard

……..#Initialize work area
……..self.workingBoard = [] #A work area for creating the next Life generation

……..#Calculate next generation on workingBoard based on mainBoard
……..for mainRowIndex, mainRow in enumerate(self.mainBoard):

…………#Initialize working row before using for each row
…………workingRow = [] #for building up workingBoard row by row

…………for mainColIndex, mainElement in enumerate(mainRow):

…………….#Restart count of live cells
…………….numLiveCells = 0

…………….for i in [-1, 0, 1]:
………………..#Check row before, same row, next row
………………..rowOfCellToCheck = mainRowIndex + i

………………..#Wraparound
………………..if rowOfCellToCheck (self.maxRowMain – 1):
……………………rowOfCellToCheck = 0
……………………
………………..for j in [-1, 0, 1]:
……………………#Check column before, same column, next column
……………………colOfCellToCheck = mainColIndex + j

……………………#Wraparound
……………………if colOfCellToCheck (self.maxColMain – 1):
……………………….colOfCellToCheck = 0

……………………#If cell to check is alive, increment count of live cells
……………………#But if same row and column, ignore
……………………sameColAndRow = abs(i) + abs(j)
……………………if sameColAndRow != 0:
……………………….if self.mainBoard[rowOfCellToCheck][colOfCellToCheck] == “1”:
………………………. numLiveCells = numLiveCells + 1
…………………………………………

…………….if self.mainBoard[mainRowIndex][mainColIndex] == “1”: # The survival rules

………………..if 2 <= numLiveCells <= 3:
……………………workingRow.append(‘1’)
………………..else:
……………………workingRow.append(‘0’)

…………….else: #The reproduction rule

………………..if numLiveCells == 3:
……………………workingRow.append(‘1’)
………………..else:
……………………workingRow.append(‘0’)
……………………
…………self.workingBoard.append(workingRow)
…………………………..
#The actual main Life program
#Usage will be Life(filename, generations to calculate, every how many generations to display, display yes/no, write to files yes/no)
#First Usage Life() — done 22-Jul 10:24
#Second Usage Life(filename) — reading in file done 22-Jul-2015 10:59
#Third Usage Life(filename) — including displaying the file and dummy next generation 22-Jul-2015 18:34
#Fourth Usage Life(filename) — real next generation done 22-Jul-2015 20:17
#Fifth Usage Life(filename, generations to calculate, every how many generations to display) done 23-Jul-2015 20:44
#NOTE: Decided not to implement writing single generations to separate files. Seems unnecessary and would just fill my disk with lots of files.
#NOTE: Piping console output to text file is fine. Modern text editors can open large, multi-generation Life files and navigate quickly
#TODO: Next learning topics (backlog) would be:
#….1. Graphic display
#….2. Mouse input of boards
#….3. Change to argparse for robust command line parsing
#….4. Clean up file layout according to some accepted Python style guide
#….5. Refactor to be more functional as opposed to procedural, and reduce global variable use, if that makes code clearer

#Create a single Life instance
myLife = Life()

#Get the command line arguments
#TODO:Switch to Python argparse module instead

#From first command line argument, get pathname of initial (zero’th) generation text file
initialGenerationFilename = sys.argv[1]

#From second command line argument, get number of generations to calculate
numGenerations = int(sys.argv[2])

#From third command line argument, get period: every how many generations to display or write to file
#NOTE: currently, writing results to a file is not yet included
periodOfDisplay = int(sys.argv[3])

#Read in the initial (zero’th) generation board from text file

#Display initial (zero’th) generation
print(“Generation #”,0)
myLife.displayBoard()
print()

#Generate and display following generations
for generationIndex in range(1,numGenerations+1): #NOTE:Add 1 because range end is always one less than value
….myLife.calculateNextGeneration()
….myLife.makeBoardCurrent()
….if (generationIndex % periodOfDisplay) == 0: #NOTE: “%” is Python modulus — checking for evening divisible by period of display
……..print(“Generation #”,generationIndex)
……..myLife.displayBoard()
……..print()

And here’s some output. The 4-generation-period “glider” on a 25 x 25 grid, starts its flight from upper-left towards lower-right.
The command I ran was

Life.py Glider25by25.txt 8 4

and the output was
``` Generation # 0 ..X...................... ...X..................... .XXX..................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... .........................```

```Generation # 4 ......................... ...X..................... ....X.................... ..XXX.................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ```
```Generation # 8 ......................... ......................... ....X.................... .....X................... ...XXX................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... ......................... .........................```

Written by Tom Harris

July 24, 2015 at 12:48 am

## Learning a New Programming Language, with Life (part 2)

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I started learning Python two days ago, as described in part 1.

Yesterday I learned about Python Classes and Functions, including class and instance variables, and the special __init__ function. Today I learned enumerate, and the list function rstrip. I also learned not to forget the colon (:) in def, for, if, and else constructs!

After just a few hours today, my first project has actually started working.

For one “generation”, according to the rules of Conway’s Game of Life.

Here it is, complete with TEST comments preceding debugging code, and TODO comments for what’s next.

`#Life.py`

```#Implementation of Conway's Game of Life #See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Game_of_Life```

#Tom Harris 22-Jul-2015

#Import libraries needed
import sys #for command line argument support

#Global functions
def initialGenerationFilename():
….#Get pathname from first command line argument
….return sys.argv[1]

#Define the Life class

class Life:
….#class attributes
….#None

….#class methods

….def __init__(self):
……..#instance attributes: define and initialize (some more later after reading in file)
……..self.mainBoard = [] #The board of cells
……..self.workingBoard = [] #A work area for creating the next Life generation
….
……..#Open the file
……..initialGenerationFile = open(filename)

……..#Read from the file, line by line:
……..for line in initialGenerationFile:
…………listLine = list(line.rstrip(‘\r\n’))
…………self.mainBoard.append(listLine) #add the line, in Python list format, to the mainBoard

……..#Determine dimensions of the board after reading in
……..#WARNING: dimensions are 1 larger than largest index, since indices start at 0
……..self.maxRowMain = len(self.mainBoard)
……..self.maxColMain = len(self.mainBoard[0])

……..#Close the file
……..initialGenerationFile.close

……..return self.mainBoard

….def displayBoard(self):
……..for rowIndex, row in enumerate(self.mainBoard):

…………for colIndex, col in enumerate(row):
…………….if self.mainBoard[rowIndex][colIndex]== “1”:
………………..print(“*”, end=”)
…………….else:
………………..print(“.”, end=”)

…………print() #print newline at end of each row

……..return 0 #TODO: replace with returning a result — what do we do with it? This is a function, not a procedure.

….def makeBoardCurrent(self): #TODO: Think of a better name — means to copy from the next-generation workingBoard to mainBoard
……..self.mainBoard = self.workingBoard
……..
……..return self.mainBoard

….def calculateNextGeneration(self):

……..#Calculate next generation on workingBoard based on mainBoard
……..workingRow = [] #for building up workingBoard row by row

……..#Calculate next generation on workingBoard based on mainBoard
……..for mainRowIndex, mainRow in enumerate(self.mainBoard):
…………for mainColIndex, mainElement in enumerate(mainRow):

…………….#Restart count of live cells
…………….numLiveCells = 0

…………….for i in [-1, 0, 1]:
………………..#Check row before, same row, next row
………………..rowOfCellToCheck = mainRowIndex + i

………………..#Wraparound
………………..if rowOfCellToCheck < 0:
……………………rowOfCellToCheck = self.maxRowMain – 1

………………..if rowOfCellToCheck > (self.maxRowMain – 1):
……………………rowOfCellToCheck = 0
……………………
………………..for j in [-1, 0, 1]:
……………………#Check column before, same column, next column
……………………colOfCellToCheck = mainColIndex + j

……………………#Wraparound
……………………if colOfCellToCheck < 0:
……………………….colOfCellToCheck = self.maxColMain – 1

……………………if colOfCellToCheck > (self.maxColMain -1):
……………………….colOfCellToCheck = 0

……………………#If cell to check is alive, increment count of live cells
……………………#But if same row and column, ignore
……………………sameColAndRow = abs(i) + abs(j)
……………………if sameColAndRow != 0:
……………………….if self.mainBoard[rowOfCellToCheck][colOfCellToCheck] == “1”:
………………………. numLiveCells = numLiveCells + 1
…………………………………………

…………….if self.mainBoard[mainRowIndex][mainColIndex] == “1”: # The survival rules

………………..if 2 <= numLiveCells <= 3:
……………………workingRow.append(‘1’)
………………..else:
……………………workingRow.append(‘0’)

…………….else: #The reproduction rule

………………..if numLiveCells == 3:
……………………workingRow.append(‘1’)
………………..else:
……………………workingRow.append(‘0’)
……………………
…………self.workingBoard.append(workingRow)
…………workingRow = []
………………..
……..return self.workingBoard

#The actual main Life program
#Usage will be Life(filename, generations to calculate, every how many generations to display, display yes/no, write to files yes/no)
#First Usage Life() — done 22-Jul 10:24
#Second Usage Life(filename) — reading in file done 22-Jul-2015 10:59
#Third Usage Life(filename) — including displaying the file and dummy next generation 22-Jul-2015 18:34
#Fourth Usage Life(filename) — real next generation done 22-Jul-2015 20:17
#TODO: Fifth Usage Life(filename, generations to calculate, every how many generations to display)

#Create a single Life instance
myLife = Life()

#Run the methods in the right order
myLife.displayBoard() #TEST: display the mainBoard before generating
print()
myLife.calculateNextGeneration()
myLife.makeBoardCurrent()
myLife.displayBoard()

And here’s the output. It’s the simplest oscillator — the “Blinker”, one generation, with wraparound:

```........ *....... *....... *....... ........ ........ ........ ........ ........```

```........ ........ **.....* ........ ........ ........ ........ ........ ........```

Written by Tom Harris

July 22, 2015 at 8:48 pm

## Learning a New Programming Language, with Life

For an upcoming course to help science students master the computer as a tool for their work, by learning to code, I need to learn Python. I reviewed discussions on Python 2 vs Python 3, and chose the latter.

To operate in a new language, I only need to learn and practice four things:

1. Input
2. Storage and Retrieval
3. Processing
4. Output

(Wish I could program functionally, and avoid #2. But Python isn’t designed for functional programming.)

My traditional project for learning a new language is to code Conway’s Game of Life.

After my first 2 hours in Python, with Python 3.4.3 installed, and Google for answering my questions, I’ve covered command line arguments (though still without argparse for user error handling), input from text file, output to console, line-by-line storage, and character-by-character retrieval from a Python list.

I’ve also imported one Python module (sys), and gotten used to code blocks via indentation.

Here’s my code so far. Wish me luck as I continue learning!

`#ReadTextFromFileAndDisplay.py`

``` #Import libraries needed import sys #for command line argument support #Get pathname of file to open from first command line argument filenameToOpen = sys.argv[1] #Open the file myFile = open(filenameToOpen) print("Pathname was: ", filenameToOpen) print("Result code for opening the file was: \n", myFile) #Read and display entire file #Also store it in a list myList = [] #declare list, initially empty print("\nHere is the file as it's being read in: \n") #Read from the file, line by line: for line in myFile: ....print(line, end='') #display each line ....myList.append(line) #add the line to the list #Close the file myFile.close print("\nFile should be closed now.\n") print("Here's the contents of the list... \n") ```

```#Display the contents of the list for row in myList: ....print(row, end='') #entire rows ....print() ....for iCharacterIndex in range(len(row)): ........print(row[iCharacterIndex]) #character by character```

p.s. I’ve put periods in to show the indentation, since it’s hard to get WordPress to preserve whitespace.

Written by Tom Harris

July 20, 2015 at 7:44 pm

## If you can’t explain it simply

Written by Tom Harris

March 7, 2015 at 10:50 pm

Posted in Teaching

## Do You See What I See?

Recently I found an excuse to dust off some old lab books of introductory science experiments. They were the curriculum for a 9th grade Physical Science I class at my high school; I wrote them as a summer job during college. I didn’t invent the experiments. Rather, the head teacher gave me outlines, and my job was to try them out and make sure they would work, so that prospective students wouldn’t get frustrated and turned off by science.

The excuse was a friend, a scientist, who is meeting a public service requirement of her studies by volunteering to teach science to schoolchildren, and to their teachers. I offered my science course as possible material for her classwork. As we looked over the experiments, we doubted a bit how even 9th graders might learn from them, or be as excited about them as I was when I built and tested them myself. Sure, the projects were easy, and they had worked. But would the experience of building these projects — static electricity demonstrations, electromagnets, motors — be enough to convey the principles behind their operation? Would the kids see the point?

Yesterday I was in the kitchen preparing a simple lunch of tacos and beans. Washing and cutting lettuce, chopping an onion, peeling a cucumber, grating cheese, warming the beans with some tomato sauce. In the quiet afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the crunch of the knife through the lettuce. Or wondering how best to preserve the other half of the cucumber, now leaking water from its open end. And why do we grate cheese? So much science, here in the kitchen!

Now with the internet, you can search “science in the kitchen” and get pages and pages of websites with all sorts of neat science projects in the kitchen. Let alone YouTube with some pretty exciting and dangerous experiments. (Be warned!) I have no doubt that school science textbooks have taken this to heart and now include experiments that relate to the real world. And yet, science enrollment declines.

Even with the best of intentions, popular science experiments in the kitchen won’t do it. Science is not in school, nor is it in the kitchen. Science is not an activity, but a way (just one way) of looking at the world and making sense of it. What excited me in science class was not the sitting and listening to the lecture. It was making the connections with daily life outside class, and enjoying the beauty of the natural world with new understanding.

Those understandings could come from things as simple as basic cell structure in biology. There’s lots of water in a living cell, so when you peel and cut a cucumber, it gets wet. Or as complex as thermodynamics. One college winter, I learned that there’s really never a flow of “cold”, but only heat transfer. For a good month after that, climbing the steps to class, I would grasp the banister outdoors, and instead of feeling cold, I felt the heat flowing out of my hand into the metal. These experiences are what brought me back to study even more.

Science teachers have to have and share that excitement. If they’re not science experts themselves, no matter. They are learning adults, who can build their own understanding and catch the excitement from science mentors. The key has to be in giving the right answer to the question so many students ask: “But what is this good for?” The wrong answers are the allegedly practical ones — advancing technology, getting a job, or passing the test. The right answer, the one that should guide science teaching, and bring the kids back to class, is “Because the world around you is beautiful, and science gives you eyes to see it.”

Written by Tom Harris

July 19, 2009 at 1:05 am

## Struggling to Learn Together

For better or worse, the educational model of the school, particularly of the university, serves as the basis for training and learning programs in the workplace. It is also the model familiar to many new workers, since they have recently come from that same school environment.

One of the burdens schools face is deciding when to attribute work to a given student, in order to use that work to give student a grade. They deal with this challenge through codes of academic integrity.

How do these codes prepare students for, or hinder workers in, exercising a crucial success behavior in the workplace: cooperative learning?

To find out, I searched Google with the phrase “working together academic integrity“.

There were some positive guidelines here and there such as:

• It’s fine for the group to discuss problem sets, class topics, and so forth. It’s fine to ask others to explain methods and solutions you don’t understand. Together, you can go over the problems several times until you understand. (From University of Windsor.)

But the results also included restrictions such as:

• You may not give or receive help on the programming assignments, except from the TA or the instructor.
• You may not show your program to anyone else until after it has been graded.
• Unless working together on an assignment has been specifically approved, it is not allowed.

Clearly, universities are struggling to say the right things on these issues, and do not speak with a single voice.

But what’s really so hard about the issue?

Time out for some skiing

I’ve only skied once or twice in my life, so each time I was back on the beginners’ slope, taking lessons. Imagine this set of rules posted on a snow-covered wooden sign next to the practice area:

 Integrity on the Slopes In order to ensure that each student is graded correctly and fairly in their skiing lessons, the following rules must be observed: Watch only the ski instructor — no peeking at others on their practice runs. No talking about how to ski, even on breaks. Unless skiing together has been specifically approved, it is not allowed.

Who would pay for ski instruction under these conditions? Who would learn to ski?

A Simpler Idea

Back to academics, or rather, training in the hi-tech workplace, why not just say:

• Cooperative learning is essential: work with others
• All sources may be used; if not yours, credit the author

Is there anything more?

Written by Tom Harris

June 28, 2006 at 3:42 am

Posted in Agile, Learning, Teaching