PyCon 2012: An Educator’s Perspective, part 2

(part 1)

PyCon logoI love this conference already. I had wondered if I would feel comfortable here or if I would feel like an outsider, since I do not program professionally. I find myself feeling right at home here, for a number of reasons. Everyone here is focused on using programming to solve problems, and everything I do professionally is focused on solving problems in education. The hacker mindset is grounded in solving problems through coding, but everyone can relate to solving important problems, regardless of how much programming the solution involves. I also have a fair amount of domain expertise, which seems to be more valuable than I first thought.

Everyone here is striving for a balance between technical coding expertise and domain expertise. People who have deep coding expertise, but little direct experience in any field other than software development, need to be taught some things about the context of the problems they are working on. I am at the other end of the spectrum. I have developed a fair level of expertise in the field of education, but I have a limited understanding of programming compared to most people here. My domain expertise is valuable, though. The field of education is ripe for disruption – it made Paul Graham’s list of seven major problems that startups should consider tackling if they want to become billionaires. The problem of improving education through better technology tools relates to Stormy Peters’ talk as well. She wants us to build tools that give users control of their data, and that build communities without widening existing gaps between groups of people. Education technology is a field that does not lend itself well to a profit-driven revenue model. The question of how to compensate highly-skilled developers and educators appropriately, without pricing out users who need free access to the tools we develop, is an interesting one to tackle. This question relates to why I left physics for teaching in the first place. I found that trying to solve society’s deepest social issues, of which universal access to high quality education is certainly one, is as intellectually challenging as the hardest problems in science and technology. It is so hard, in fact, that Paul Graham recommended people not touch the problem of fixing high schools but focus instead on the “easier” problem of replacing universities.

What I am seeing and hearing here is right in line with the goals I set for this conference:

I want to improve my understanding of best practices in software development.
I have attended talks about deploying projects to a virtual private server, about testing code, about subclassing, and about design principles that every front end developer should be familiar with. These talks provide a big-picture perspective that is difficult to get from the books and online resources that I usually learn from. I can follow up with these types of resources, but the talks themselves have been invaluable in pointing me in the right direction.

I want to meet people who program professionally.
I met a guy who works at a content management company, a guy who runs a forensic analysis company, and a guy who works at Google. Their perspectives validate much of what I have read about the day to day realities of a career in software development. Meeting these people definitely helps me talk to students more clearly about what they might be able to do if they pursue a career in software development.

I want to hear what professional programmers think young people should do to prepare for a career in software development.
I have heard just a little bit about how people got into programming in the first place. Everyone I have met started programming when they were high school age or younger, but no one that I’ve talked to had any formal training in programming while they were in high school. I have been completely welcomed as a teacher, both for what I teach students and for how I aim to address some problems in education through technological solutions.

I want to keep an eye out for professional programming practices that are relevant to education as a whole.
I have not seen specific practices that I want to emulate in education, but the overwhelming focus on solving important problems and iterating until you are successful renews my motivation to work hard at the problems I see on a daily basis. This is true for day to day teaching and for the long term operation of schools. Educators who try to move the profession forward are doing important work, and we need to keep at it until we have made meaningful change in our schools. This includes brushing off bureaucratic weight whenever possible, and focusing on what we as educators know is important. Then we need to look at ways our solutions can scale to other schools, and describe carefully the ways in which solutions don’t scale, but may be copied laterally.

This conference has already clarified my role in the Python community, and the first day isn’t even over yet. I love it here, and I can’t wait to see what’s next and try to use what I have been learning.

PyCon 2012: An Educator’s Perspective
PyCon 2012: An Educator’s Perspective, part 2
PyCon 2012: Side trip to the redwoods
PyCon 2012: Saying “Thank you” to Guido
PyCon 2012: An Educator’s Perspective, part 3

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About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
This entry was posted in education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to PyCon 2012: An Educator’s Perspective, part 2

  1. Matt G says:

    I’m finding your thoughts on teaching/education interesting to read and think about. Over the last while, I’ve been working with Roby Littlefield on doing some Tlingit Language stuff with techniques from Where Are Your Keys?/Language Hunting – it seems like there might be some things there that you could find of interest and/or useful as well.
    http://wiki.whereareyourkeys.org/A_game,_a_system,_and_a_philosophy

  2. ehmatthes says:

    Hi Matt,
    I think of you pretty regularly as I am teaching, especially when my classes have anything to do with math or natural history. I’m going to teach a class about birds of southeast AK in April and May, so it would be great to get back in touch with you. I am super busy being a new dad, but it also makes me really motivated to teach well. I’ll get in touch when I get back from PyCon.
    – Eric

  3. Sounds like a very interesting conference! People using programming to solve problems sounds like it’s right up my alley! I’ll keep an eye out for this one next year.

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