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Lesson plans

Explore's collection of interactive pre-university computing lessons below.

Graphics: Calculating Color

paint bottlesIn a digital world we take color for granted. Through off-computer activities, students learn the difference between additive and subtractive color, and how images are generated on screen and transferred to physical print.

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Graphics: Bits and Points

pixel vanComputer graphics dominates young people’s lives. Their worldview is heavily influenced by pixels. This lesson uses age appropriate experiences to explain the difference between bitmap (raster) and vector graphics. The lesson covers how information is lost when it is digitized, and how computer graphics techniques can both enhance images, and provide vehicles for corrupting them. It also introduces some ideas on how to efficiently schedule a task.

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Fibonacci via Recursion and Iteration

shellThis lesson introduces how to calculate an arithmetic series, specifically Fibonacci. In the first of two hour-long sessions, using a spreadsheet (e.g. Microsoft Excel or Google Drive Sheets), students are shown how to calculate a series based on two prior values (the iterative solution), and by using a user-defined function (the recursive solution). With a large enough domain, most computers will exhibit real delays in calculating the recursion for values greater than 30. In the second session, they will explore why the iterative solution is faster, and why the recursive solution significantly slows down for large values. This lesson assumes that the teacher is well versed in using spreadsheets, including copy-down formulas.

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Encryption – All About Code

lock on tabletStudents learn how alphanumeric symbols can be encoded for a multitude of fun purposes. In the first of two sessions (each 2 hours long) they learn about codes, and are asked to make their own with a limited number of symbols. In the second session they are asked to break each other’s codes and discover the relationship among encryption, decryption, and shared keys.

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Concurrency Means Cooperation

chopsticksThis lesson provides a number of kinesthetic exercises that illustrate how teamwork can contribute to efficient problem solutions. The lesson includes practice in figuring out how to divide up a problem, and reassemble it. Students also explore how scientists use the Internet and idle computing power to do calculations on volunteer machines. If possible, with sufficient teacher expertise, students set up a computer to contribute to solving such a problem.

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Circuits and Boolean Expressions

strawsBoolean logic is essential to understanding computer architecture. It is also useful in program construction and Artificial Intelligence. This lesson is a gentle introduction to formal logic using Boolean notation, and Circuits. Students learn the basic rules by playing the role of logic gates in a half adder and full adder. Free logic gate construction software available online can be incorporated optionally.

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Boolean Algebra is Elementary

pixel vanSherlock Holmes delighted in saying ‘It’s elementary, my dear Watson’. This lesson provides a brief overview of how Boolean algebra provides the basis for artificial intelligence reasoning. The rules of propositional logic are introduced in the context of the kind of ‘AI’ found in role-playing games both on the computer and off.

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AI Search: Lions and Gazelles

lionThis is an introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI) ‘state-space search.’ The entertaining story line provides necessary background justifying the classic rules. Students will write and perform a skit that solves the problem using pre-made paper props, as they explore the concept of state representation. This is followed by an informal analysis of state-space, state representations, depth- and breadth-first search, and shortest path.

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"Program Your Own Game" Lesson

game programming software screenshotThe "Program Your Own Game" activity explores the work of software engineers and allows student teams to develop their own computer game using free and simple software. Teams present their game to their class, evaluate other games, and reflect on the engineering experience.

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"Arduino Blink Challenge" Lesson

hands working on arduino boardThe "Arduino Blink Challenge" lesson explores how computer and software engineers work to solve the challenges of a society, such as providing systems for turning lights on and off automatically. Students work in teams to set up and program an Arduino board to turn a light on and off at a 5 second on and 2 second off interval. Teams build their system, program and test it, reflect on the challenge, and present their experiences to their class.

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Punch card from a COBOL program
Jean Sammet

Jean E. Sammet was one of the first developers and researchers in programming languages. During the 1950’s - 1960’s she supervised the first scientific programming group for Sperry Gyroscope Co. and served as a key member of the original COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) committee at Sylvania Electric Products. She also taught one of the first graduate programming courses in the country at Adelphi College. After joining IBM in 1961, she developed and directed the first FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler). This was the first widely used general language and system for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic expressions. In 1979 she began handling Ada activities for IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Ada is a structured, object-oriented high-level computer programming language, designed for large, long-lived applications, where reliability and efficiency are paramount. Jean has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from the University of Illinois, both in Mathematics. She received an honorary D.Sc. from Mount Holyoke (1978).

James Dammann

If you have used a word processor today, moved your mouse on your laptop, dragged an object around on your smartphone, or highlighted a section of text on your tablet, you can thank Jim Dammann. In 1961 during his second year at IBM and just one year after completing his PhD, Jim created the concept of what today we all take for granted -- the cursor. This idea he documented in utilizing the cursor within word processing operations.

After retiring from IBM, Jim went on to inspire future generations of software engineers at Florida Atlantic University. His work there too demonstrated his creativity for he spent considerable effort enhancing their software engineering program by integrating ideas and feedback from local industries into the University curricular. Today, Jim lives in the Westlake Hills west of Austin Texas and spends most of his time in his art studio. He wrote and published The Opaque Decanter, a collection of poems about art, which provided a new view at part of art history.

RISC processor
John Hennessy
John Hennessy

Have you ever wondered how computers can execute complex commands in mere seconds? John Hennessy is a pioneer of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture which employs small, highly-optimized sets of instructions to greatly enhance computer performance. He was instrumental in transferring the technology, specifically MIPS RISC architecture, to industry. He co-founded MIPS Technologies and co-authored the classic textbook with David A. Patterson, on Computer Architecture.

As Stanford faculty he rose to be the Chairman of the Computer Science Department, Dean of the School of Engineering, then Provost and finally the President of Stanford in 2000 (and till date). Hennessy holds a Master’s and Ph.D. in Computer Science from SUNY Stony Brook. He is an IEEE Fellow and was selected to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor in 2012. Hennessey also launched significant activities that helped to foster interdisciplinary research in the biosciences and bioengineering at Stanford.

Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson
Liz Gerber
Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson

Liz Gerber earned her MS and PhD in Product Design and Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. She specializes in design and human-computer interaction, particularly how social computing supports the innovation process. Her current research investigates crowd-funding as a mechanism for reducing disparities in entrepreneurship.
Gerber's work funded by the US National Science Foundation and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, including Transactions on Computer Human Interactions, Design Studies, and Organization Science.
As an award-winning teacher and researcher, Liz has touched the lives of more than 6,000 students through her teaching at Northwestern's Segal Design Institute and Stanford University's Hasso Plattner's Institute of Design and through her paradigm-shifting creation, Design for America, a national network of students using design to tackle social challenges.

Image credit - Lisa Beth Anderson

CGA palette
Mark Dean

If you have ever used a PC with a color display you have been acquainted with the work of Mark Dean. After achieving a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, Dean began his career at IBM. Dean served as the chief engineer on the team that developed the first IBM PC, for which he currently holds one third of the patents. With colleague Dennis Moeller, he developed the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus, which enabled peripheral devices such as printers, keyboards, and modems to be directly connected to computers, making them both affordable and practical. He also developed the Color Graphics Adapter which allowed for color display on the PC. Most recently, Dean spearheaded the team that developed the one-gigahertz processor chip. Dean went on to obtain a MSEE from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and is the first African-American IBM Fellow.

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