Day 1: Polar Bears around an Ice Hole Redux

This year, I’m going to try and focus the 180-blog on the new AP Physics 2 class and the 1:1 Digital Learning Initiative. However, today’s AP Computer Science class was too good not to share. The new computers in the classroom aren’t ready yet. As a result, I had to change my usual first-day activities to those that don’t require a computer. I remembered an activity with which I used to start my General Physics class: Polar Bears around an Ice Hole. (I wrote that post four years ago. I love that blogging not only helps others but provides a record that helps my future self!)

While this activity was designed to introduce my students to physics class, it worked just as well and probably better for computer science. The process of solving the riddle parallels that of designing an algorithm or debugging a program. Reflecting at the end of the activity, students shared their feelings of frustration when they didn’t understand, elation when they did, and self-doubt when they realized how simple the solution is. In addition, as we tried to solve the riddle, the students made suggestions which mirrored best practices for algorithm design and debugging. They asked to reduce the scope of the problem (roll three dice instead of six), test special cases (make all dice show five), and change a variable and see the effect (change one die from a five to a one). I was very impressed when students who had solved the problems offered suggestions as to how to reframe the game that helped others solve the problem without directly telling them the answer. I still ended the activity by “assigning” grades based on how quickly a student solved the puzzle. When I asked one of the students who got a “C” if he was okay with that, he said he was. Another student, unprompted, interjected that his grade wasn’t fair since it shouldn’t matter that it took him longer to solve the puzzle since, in the end, he still understands the game. My work here is done!

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