Learning with the Best

I certainly enjoy going to professional development sessions to learn with others and this past week, I had the pleasure of working with some of Ontario’s best at the ACSE Summer Conference in Waterloo.  This annual event is hosted and organized by the CEMC (Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing) and, of course, by Sandy and the rest of the ACSE executive.

The event has a unique feel to it.  The locale is the Mathematics Building at the University of Waterloo where mathematics and computer science aren’t just a strand – they are the sole reason for being.  The environment is just different as people’s passion is quite evident.  Presenting in this environment is unique too.  You have some of the best equipment available and an audience that does this for a profession.  You’ve got to keep it moving!

I couldn’t attend all three days but our session, which became my session, was Thursday afternoon.  I drove to Waterloo on Thursday morning and landed in the old Math C&D Lounge with a number of summer students.  I didn’t want to interrupt a session in progress so decided that I’d tweet my buddies @pbeens and @pmcash to see where lunch was.  In many locations, that would be an event in itself.  Not here.  My iPod found a bunch of wireless sources as you might expect including uw_guest.  No hassles or passwords for access and within five minutes the connections were made.  This is what connectivity should be.  Lunch was over at Renison University College across Ring Road.  Residence at Renison would also be home for the evening as well.

Now, everything ramped up – great lunch and conversations and it was back to the Mathematics Building for my session – involved using wikis as a classroom management system and media aggregator for my Computer Studies teachable class at the university.  I made sure that my co-presenter was there in spirit by adding a little bling to the presentation.

Back to Renison and a nice chat with @pmcash about the interdisciplinary course that he offers to his students.  When he detailed all that was happening, I was so impressed.  Those students will get the full monty, to be sure.  Dinner was at the Faculty Club – normally reserved for the university teaching staff but we were it for that night.  Too cool.  Next, I figured that we were in for a relaxing evening.  Not!

All of the participants will receive a memory key with all of the resources so we ended up creating an assembly line with our computers to create the resource.  Divided among a bunch of us, that didn’t take more than an hour or so.  Then, I got to undivided quality personal tutorial time with @pbeens.  Since his blog post about the entries that he was pondering about for submission for the Worldwide Photowalk, I’ve been very interested in his approach to HDR photography.  He gave me a demo of how his camera (which I assume is his travel camera because he kept making reference to his “good” camera at home) works to generate the pictures and the science behind the technique.  I got a demonstration of the software that he uses.  Too cool.  I brought along my camera because I had no idea if it had the ability to do this.  Our initial investigation said no.  Then, for whatever reason, I was back in my room talking with someone and I could hear my camera going through the paces with Peter in the next toom.  Within 15 minutes, he was back to indicate that my camera could indeed do the technique.  I learned on the spot how it’s done and also that I’m an idiot as I had left my camera’s SD memory card at home.  My goal this weekend is to see if his lesson took and that I’m going to be able to dabble in this realm.

Friday came and I was in for a real treat.  Since I had left the Computer Science classroom, I haven’t been immersed in the programming world like I once was.  I can hold my own in Python, C, or Java but am humbled by those who can make a computer spin.  And, spin we did.  @rgordon led a session entitled “Web Software on a Stick”.  The session took us on a tour of creating a web environment on a memory key using Apache, Netbeans, and PHP so that students could create their own web environment for Computer Studies.  Most in the class set theirs up for Java but @pbeens and I ended up late for the party as we elected Python which took considerably longer.  Eventually, it did work – but the true test was would it work on another computer?  (i.e. we had left the local registry alone)  We were working on an XP workstation so folks just moved to another.  I fired up my laptop and sure enough it worked beautifully under Windows 7.  Lots of resources were shared.  Liberkeyand PortableApps were cited as sources for software suitable for this application.  Editorial comment – everyone should have a memory key with portable Firefox on it so that you know you’ve got a good browser when you visit someone else’s network.

In the afternoon, I decided to go and heckle @pmcash much as he had done with my wiki presentation.  The topic was about using Web 2.0 in the classroom and essentially we got an overview of how he had used web tools with his IDC class last year and where he thought that he might head this year.  He did ask me why I was there but it was to truly learn.  It’s one thing to talk about the power of all of this but it’s quite another to hear from someone who actually uses it for curriculum reasons.  Peter did a great job.  Rather than a presentation format, he used Mindmeister as a graphic organizer for the session and had constructed links to take those to the resources that he was highlighting.  For the most part, it worked very nicely.  Probably most interesting was how he was planning to use Edmodo as a Learning Management System for the class.  The session was kind of a spoiler since he had shared the mindmap beforehand with me as he was preparing for the session so I did know what was coming.  I do have to remark again how lucky his students are to have a computer studies teacher bring that perspective to an interdisciplinary content course.  It will be rich with Web 2.0 applications and our discussions the previous evening indicates that it will be project based with a focus on problem solving for deeper understanding.  No low hanging fruit here.

By the end, I was exhausted and ready to climb into my own bed.  It was only four hours away optimistically.  I recalled my experiences with traffic last year on the Parkway and so headed home cross country.  Driving through the hills of Waterloo Region and Perth County gave me all kinds of time to think and reflect upon what I’d learned.  These folks are incredible to learn with and ACSE and the CEMC and, of course, Sandy need to be congratulated on offering another spectacular event.  Every Computer Studies teacher needs to be part of this at some time.  Join the ACSE mailing list, at least, at http://bit.ly/6h6BLH or partake in the repository of shared resources.  You’ll be learning with some of the best educators in the province.

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