Credit Where Credit Is Due


June 9, 2011 Filed under: Online Classes IMACS Staff Writer @ 7:00 am

As news reports will remind you daily, education today in the United States is facing some of its most serious challenges. While extracurricular activities like music, art, and physical education were the focus of past budget cuts, the more recent crisis is taking aim at classes for advanced and gifted students. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Advanced Placement students taking courses online after the traditional AP classes were cut from their schools. So if you find yourself seriously thinking about online classes for your child, whether out of necessity or choice, how do you get the appropriate credit at his or her school? The first challenge is to find a quality program with quality people. You’ll see why this matters beyond the obvious reasons as you read the below advice that we give to the parents of our students.

Officially approved course. Whenever you are trying to establish credibility for someone, it helps to have someone who already has credibility vouching for that person. That’s why in a courtroom, some people make good character witnesses, and others, not so much. It works the same way with online high school classes. Teachers and administrators just don’t have the time or resources to review in detail every program that is presented to them for consideration. So it helps if they can look to an authoritative body that has already done the analysis. When the College Board, for example, audits an Advanced Placement curriculum and lists it on their Web site as an approved online course, you know you’ve found a program that not only meets the rigorous requirements of the audit process but also puts you in a good starting position to make the case for credit.

For online classes not specifically designed to prepare for AP exams, there are respected institutions that schools look to for help in assessing their quality. For example, check out educere.net, which is used by many districts throughout the US to provide courses not offered through their schools. This and similar portals review online courses according to their own set of strict criteria.

Track record. There are two different types of track records to look for. Obviously, you want a program with a history of excellence. When you find one with core people and a curriculum that have stood the test of time, you know you’ve probably found a quality provider. In addition to looking for longevity, ask to speak with parents of current and former students. Ask about alumni. It’s nice to hear that this one went on to Harvard and that one went on to Yale, but let’s get real. These might have been smart kids who would’ve done that anyway. The real question is, what more have these students been able to accomplish as a result of taking this online course that they would not have otherwise? When an online provider can stand up to this kind of scrutiny from you, they are more likely to do the same when being considered for credit by your child’s school.

The second kind of track record is whether or not the provider has successfully assisted parents in getting their online courses accepted for credit. While the exact process will differ from school to school, the essence is likely very similar. School personnel need to be persuaded that the online course material meets their standards for the credit you are seeking. Just like with a good attorney, experience goes a long way when offering proper counsel to parents on what evidence to present to whom. Think of it this way. If you’re on trial, do you want a lawyer whose past clients are all in jail? I think not.

Find an ally. No matter the course, when trying to receive approval for credit, you absolutely need to find someone at your school who is forward looking to discuss this with. It could be a guidance counselor or other administrator. Ideally, it would be someone who’s handled similar situations before with positive outcomes. This is the person who is going to help you navigate the path to approval. If you’re fortunate, the process might involve meeting with the appropriate decision maker from the school; sharing detailed information about the course curriculum, online provider’s history, and any official stamp of approval from an authoritative body; and presenting examples of your child’s work, including scores and grading methodology. More typically, you’ll need several meetings with the same or more people to address follow-up questions and requests for additional information. As you might imagine, it behooves you to keep a detailed file right from the beginning, and also to be nice. Not a pushover, but definitely nice.

Communication. So you’ve presented your file full of evidence, and your school is still not sure about whether to give your child credit. What do you do? It may be time to step back from being the information middleman and let the educators talk directly to each other. Do your part to introduce and facilitate communication between your school’s decision makers and the right people from the online course provider. That would be your child’s principal instructor (a quality program would have assigned one) or someone else who can speak intelligently and in detail about the course curriculum. If you are successful in gaining credit for the online class, then counselors or administrators at your child’s school will want to stay in communication with you and/or the online course provider to get regular updates on your child’s progress. Communication is essential throughout this whole process, so make sure you choose a provider who is willing and able to make themselves and the necessary information available whenever they are needed.

What has worked for you in trying to get an online course approved for credit? Share your best advice here.

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In the Scheme of Things


June 2, 2011 Filed under: AP Computer Science,Computer Programming,Curriculum Development,Meet IMACS IMACS Staff Writer @ 10:20 pm

Iain Ferguson works with an IMACS student to program a mobile robot.

Today, we’re chatting with Iain Ferguson who – in addition to being IMACS’s senior curriculum developer for the computer science program – is the guy behind the sophisticated technology that runs our online computer programming classes. Iain has taught these courses as well, and so brings with him the experience of having seen what works in the classroom and what doesn’t.

Q: Why does your Introduction to Computer Science course use the Scheme programming language? Isn’t the Advanced Placement exam in Java?

A: We start off with Scheme because it’s the most effective for helping students to understand the fundamental concepts of computer science that are common to all programming languages. And we’re not alone in this choice. Graduates of the some of the top universities, including MIT, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and UC Berkeley, were first taught to program in their freshman year using Scheme.

What we’ve found over 20 years of teaching this course is that if you throw a new student straight into Java, or whatever language the AP exam covers at the time, he or she can easily get mired in its complicated rules of syntax. If you simultaneously try to make a student learn the fundamentals, which are arguably more important, some of those fundamentals just won’t be understood, or they’ll be understood incorrectly. And so the students try to move on to more complicated programming assignments, and they’re hampered by a false understanding of the underlying abstract thinking.

Scheme’s syntax is simple and natural. So it takes our students very little time to pick it up. They use their mental energy instead on developing a deep comprehension of the the abstract mathematical thinking involved in programming. Applying that way of thinking to concrete computer algorithms is then rather trivial for them.

Q: Beyond doing well on the AP exam, how do you know that this approach of teaching Scheme first is working?

A: We hear from a lot of our former students once they’ve gone on to university about how easy their classes are thanks to what and how they learned here. One of my favorite stories is of a student named Erik who went to Virginia Tech. He was taking Computer Engineering in a class of about 600 students, and the first exam was designed to weed out about half of them. So Erik completed the test in 10 minutes with a perfect score. The next day the professor called him in and accused him of cheating. Well, of course, he hadn’t cheated and when he said so, the professor gave him a similar question that was solved just as quickly. Then the professor wanted to know how it was possible for a freshman to have such a deep understanding. Erik told him about learning to program with Scheme, and that was enough to convince the professor that not only had Erik not cheated but that he was also the strongest student in this class of 600.

Q: If Scheme is so beneficial, why don’t more high schools offer it?

A: Their resources are very limited, especially in this economic environment, and the demands on teachers’ time is rather significant. As with most university-level courses, it’s unrealistic to ask high schools to even consider putting resources towards preparing and teaching a class like this. If you really want to do it at a high level, you need instructors with an extensive background in university-level computer science and extensive training in teaching advanced subjects to young adults. Plus you either have to develop the appropriate curriculum or find it and license it. So you’re looking at a lot of time and expense, both of which are, unfortunately, in short supply at the typical high school.

Sounds like a guy who knows his stuff! What language did you use in your first computer programming class, and did it leave you with confusion or clarity?

P.S. If you’re ever in South Florida and want to play a game of Nim, stop by our offices and ask for Iain. He will destroy you, and it won’t hurt a bit!

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Who Knew? Wu Knew.


May 26, 2011 Filed under: Computer Programming,Online Classes IMACS Staff Writer @ 12:35 am

Meet Katherine Wu:
• eIMACS Computer Science alumna
• Webmaster for the Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal
• Lab manager for The Center for Language and Speech Processing where she will be conducting research this summer
• Author of “Breaking Barriers in Computer Science,” soon-to-be-published in the undergraduate research journal The Triple Helix
• One of only 50 students selected from across the US and Canada to participate in the Google FUSE 2011 computer science retreat

Are you suitably impressed? We are. When Katherine found us, she hadn’t even taken a computer programming for beginners class. But she knew what she was looking for – a solid introduction to programming and individualized instruction that would allow her to excel at a faster pace through more challenging material. Well, Katherine just sailed through her freshman year as a Computer Science major at The Johns Hopkins University, taking mostly junior and senior level CS courses along with a graduate level CS seminar, and is already deep into her summer research schedule.

When asked to reflect on her first year at college and experiences so far in CS, here’s what she said: “I was anything BUT picky about club and academic experiences my first-year in college. If there’s something you’re interested in doing, there are no ifs-ands-or-buts about it; take the chance and do it! If anything, you’ll always form new relationships and learn something new. I look back, especially on my experiences in Computer Science, and all I can say is ‘Wow! It’s like a whole other world.’ I took my first courses with IMACS, and they were the ones who sparked my passion in Computer Science and supported me all the way up through taking the AP Computer Science exam and beyond. I’m proud to say that IMACS is not just your typical course provider, but a community that strongly cares about your personal learning and achievements. I think they are one of a kind.”

Lucky for Katherine, the foundation she built at IMACS gave her the skills and confidence to handle upper-division coursework. Lucky for us, she’s happy to share her story (and even her video bloopers) with you. Check out her video below, and follow her summer research adventure here.

If you’re a former or current student or parent and would like to share your IMACS story, email us at info@eimacs.com.

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Laying the Foundation With Logic


May 19, 2011 Filed under: Critical Thinking,Logical Reasoning IMACS Staff Writer @ 12:34 am

Why do we bother teaching children their ABC’s when they are so young? It’s not as if they are going to write the next Gettysburg Address once they know the difference between b and d. Why do piano teachers spend so much time with their beginning students on proper finger placement? It’s not like they are going to compose a symphony once they know that a treble clef means play these notes with your right hand. So why does IMACS start students off with an introduction to logic course? It’s not as though they’re going to solve the twin prime conjecture once they know the difference between modus ponens and modus tollens.

Now before you leave a comment about why that’s not a perfect analogy, you’re right. The point was to push your thinking in that direction before you think about this: Why do we use an exaggerated voice when talking to a baby that doesn’t yet understand words? Why do we toss off aphorisms to small children who don’t have the life experience to know what they mean? (Here’s a fun list if you want to practice sounding clever and wise.) It’s because when a growing brain comes to understand the nuances of tone, the subtleties of language, the connotations beyond the denotations, then and only then can its potential be realized as the developed brain of a novelist, journalist, and yes, even blogger unleashing the full power of human communication. Now, it’s a long time between teething and typing away at the next great idea. But parents still talk to their kids in these ways because they understand, if only subconsciously, that it’s part of teaching children how to express themselves effectively in adulthood. That’s likely how their own parents spoke, and so it’s very familiar.

Formal logic, on the other hand, is not as familiar. So the question naturally arises, “Why spend so much time teaching it when all I’m looking for are advanced classes for gifted and talented students?” For those who go on to major in math or computer science at college, the benefits of taking logic courses are obvious. They will be expected to write complicated proofs or programs that are logically coherent. If they choose these fields as professions, their ability to make a living (and stop mooching off of you) will largely depend on their ability to do this really well. And just as with teaching the skills that lead to great story-writing, you don’t start when the kid is already in college. By then, you want your college student to already have these tools so he can blow away the curve and make you so proud that you will not stress when he goes on his first spring break trip where there will be no mischief whatsoever. You start earlier by first teaching them how to craft a well formed and logically consistent argument, and then you layer on the advanced courses that require this fundamental skill in order to be successful.

But what about students who are not going into math or CS? Well, are there any future philosophy majors out there? How about pre-law? Wouldn’t you know it, they too will need the ability to make logically coherent arguments in their coursework, whether it’s debating the forms of Plato or taking the opposite side of a Supreme Court decision. Speaking of debate, we’ve had a number of high school students tell us that their logic skills helped them to excel in debate class. Come to think of it, if your child plans to be in a position where she needs to think about ideas in an orderly fashion, connect pieces of information together, draw conclusions from her analysis, and present her argument for scrutiny, understanding logic would be a huge advantage. Someone stop me now before I break out into “I’d like to teach the world a proof…”

Do you have a story about a situation in which understanding logic helped you? Leave it in a comment below.

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Not the Macarena


May 12, 2011 Filed under: Online Classes IMACS Staff Writer @ 11:46 pm

There’s an old Pink Floyd song that goes like this:

We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher, leave them kids alone.
Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone.

If you don’t know who Pink Floyd is, go text your dad. If he’s old enough to know, then he’s probably of a generation where taking a class meant being in a bricks & mortar school, sitting in an intentionally uncomfortable desk, and listening to a teacher lead a mostly one-way lecture. If the teacher had to step out of the classroom, it would not be unusual for pandemonium to break loose and any semblance of learning to go out the door with her. So it comes as no surprise when some parents are skeptical that students can learn without a teacher being present in the same room. They just can’t imagine how online classes for high school students can work for their child. The reality is that online courses can work really well if you have at least three crucial ingredients:

Curriculum Experience

Experience matters, whether you’re talking about education, medicine, law, or any field where learning through doing makes a huge difference in the quality of outcomes. With online high school courses, as with traditional classes, curriculum experience is key. Remember that curriculum is not just about what topics are covered and in what order. It’s not just a list you can cobble together from Google searches. The best curricula are developed over extended periods with real student feedback and are time tested to have actually worked in physical classroom settings.

A good curriculum is also determined by how the material is presented. Are the lessons designed in an engaging way that invites the student to be part of the learning process? Or is it more like reading a lecture with a few colorful graphics tossed in? Having the experience to know how to pull students in can make the difference between a child who wants to stay focused on the lesson on screen and a child who is willingly distracted by the latest updates to their friend’s Facebook page.

Sophisticated Real-time Feedback

Okay, so now you think you’ve found a program with a good curriculum that has proven over time to be effective with real students. Next question: Can your child access the knowledge in a way that mimics the natural interactive style of humans? Or is he simply being shown a series of multiple choice questions without any catalyst to stimulate critical thinking? A good indicator would be if the technology, whether it’s a Web site or a software program, was developed to anticipate where students might stumble. This is another place where having taught the same curriculum to real students in a real classroom is a huge benefit to program developers.

Naturally, you will also want the technology to be designed with interactive features that provide immediate feedback to students when they need it. It would be like having a teacher right next to you saying, “Not quite, try again,” before you botch the rest of you work with an early mistake. Wouldn’t it have been great if when you were in school, you could find out right away instead of days later if your homework was wrong so that you’d have more time to correct your thinking before the test? (I hear you now, “That could’ve been me at Harvard!”) Speaking of tests, be sure that you have online access to your child’s scores for assignments and tests so that you and your child can monitor his progress.

Live Help Available in a Timely Manner

Sometimes, you just need a human touch. Like when you’ve exhausted the automated telephone menu and you just need to dial ‘0’ to reach the next customer service representative who will be with you shortly. Or in most cases, not so shortly. You’ll want to look for a program where each student is assigned a real instructor who monitors the student’s progress and is available for questions. Make sure that you can contact the teacher by phone or by email. The best programs have instructors and technical support available in some form seven days a week, including evenings. And if you do come upon a new situation that requires live help, program developers will be very thankful that you brought it to their attention because it helps them improve the online experience for you and future students.

Now that I finished writing this blog post, I have no idea how those Pink Floyd lyrics are relevant other than when the topic came up, the song popped into my head and now I can’t get it out!

What other features would you want to see from a provider of online courses?

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Programming For Profits


May 5, 2011 Filed under: Careers,Computer Programming IMACS Staff Writer @ 7:09 pm

When students or their parents think about career choices for computer programmers, they often think of software development and gaming. No doubt, working for Google or Blizzard Entertainment would be awesome, but not everybody will land one of those coveted jobs. Operations research and various areas of engineering may also come to mind as places to put your programming prowess to work. Less frequently, however, do people think of the financial industry.

Now before you go ranting that these smarty pants are the ones who brought down the global financial markets with their esoteric models that only a Ph.D. could understand, let’s skip that debate and merely point out this fact: programming jobs in finance are challenging and pay well. Ignoring them because you think they are on “the dark side” simply leaves you with fewer options. So let’s take a look at three areas of finance where computer programming is more than just a peripheral activity.

Computational finance. Computational finance was historically the domain of math and science Ph.D.’s who moved from academia to Wall Street (“quants”), especially as the use of financial instruments such as derivatives increased. The work of pricing these complex securities was roughly divided between the quants, who came up with the methodologies, and the programmers, who implemented the mathematical models. Over time, the focus has shifted to refining and optimizing the models. According to the Wikipedia entry on computational finance, “[A]s the actual use of computers has become essential to rapidly carrying out computational finance decisions, a background in computer programming has become useful, and hence many computer programmers enter the field either from Ph.D. programs or from other fields of software engineering.” Programmers are no longer solely relegated to the IT department, on call to do the bidding of the brain trust. The best ones are now part of that brain trust and are considered essential to financial institutions’ ability to maximize profits and minimize losses.

Algorithmic trading. What is algorithmic trading? Let’s go to the Wikipedia page: “… the use of computer programs for entering trading orders with the computer algorithm deciding on aspects of the order such as the timing, price, or quantity of the order, or in many cases initiating the order without human intervention. … A special class of algorithmic trading is ‘high-frequency trading’ (HFT), in which computers make elaborate decisions to initiate orders based on information that is received electronically, before human traders are capable of processing the information they observe [emphasis added].” So one set of humans (i.e., computer programmers) creates mathematical rules to replace a different set of humans (i.e., traders). And they’re paid handsomely for this disservice to their fellow man. Maybe you can see yourself doing this as sweet revenge upon those evil trader dudes who, some say, blew up the financial markets. Not such a bad idea now, eh?

Actuarial science. Finally, actuarial science. Wikipedia, don’t fail me now! “Actuarial science is the discipline that applies mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk in the insurance and finance industries. … Actuarial science includes a number of interrelating subjects, including probability, mathematics, statistics, finance, economics, financial economics and [trumpets, please] computer programming.” Who knew that figuring out when a given cohort of individuals will, uh-hum, kick the bucket could be so interesting? Well, as it turns out, one of our former students knows this well as he was able to pass all of the actuarial exams at a fairly young age and is currently the chief pricing actuary of a major global life reinsurance company. We’re pretty sure he’s done well for himself.

So if you have a knack for computers and want to explore where these talents might take you, don’t forget about the financial industry as a place that can provide a rewarding career. Try to make room in your class schedule for the programming courses you will need to put you on the right path. If you don’t have access to these courses at your school, think about taking online computer programming classes. If done right, learning computer programming online can be just as effective in preparing you for the next level.

Do you or someone you know use computer programming skills in a non-traditional field? Tell us about it.

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Right Click, Left Click, Neigh: Horses That Program


April 28, 2011 Filed under: Careers,Computer Programming,Online Classes IMACS Staff Writer @ 7:08 pm

(With apologies to Doreen Cronin, author of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type)

There once was a stable of horses
Who thought it was time to join forces
And protest their labor
With more than just “neigh” for
A better job, advised their sources (i.e., the cows).

The farmer said, “What good are you
Except as my wagon-pull crew?
I’ll send you to IMACS
To learn more than syntax.
If not, then it’s off to be glue!”

(Unfortunately, our classrooms are not equipped for horses, so we directed them to our online computer courses at eimacs.com.)

No school had yet enrolled equine
In computer courses online.
They paid us in oats,
And we don’t mean to gloat,
But everything turned out just fine.

The horses got out of their jam;
They now build apps to filter spam.
So who do you turn to
If you want to learn to
Write your own computer programs?
Why, IMACS, of course!
We’re the ultimate source
To upgrade your personal RAM.

Do you have a clever (and family-friendly) limerick about math or computer science to share? Email us at info @ eimacs.com.

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Introducing … The IMACS Blog!


April 21, 2011 Filed under: Curriculum Development,Gifted And Talented,Meet IMACS,Robotics,STEM Education IMACS Staff Writer @ 6:01 pm

Terry Kaufman with student at the IMACS Hi-Tech Summer Camp Open House.

Welcome to the IMACS blog. Check in with us from time to time for mathematical musings and more. Since this is our inaugural blog post, we’ll be utterly predictable and start with the obligatory interview with the president. No, not that president. We mean our very own Terry Kaufman, president, co-founder and all-around good guy, at the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, lovingly known as IMACS.

Q: So, Terry, why did you start IMACS?

A: My dad, Burt Kaufman, had been working with mathematically talented students for as long as I can remember, whether it was developing curriculum or teaching them in the classroom. The programs he was involved with ultimately brought him back to South Florida where the Broward County public school system agreed to fund what was then called Mathematics Education for Gifted Secondary School Students (MEGSSS). Project MEGSSS had a successful run in Broward County from 1983 to 1993, but then fell to the budget cutting axe. Well, my oldest child was only two at the time, and I thought to myself, “You know, I really want him to have the benefit of this curriculum.” I’d seen with my own eyes the enthusiasm for math and computer science that my father’s students had when they studied this material. So I said to Ed [Martin] and Iain [Ferguson], our senior curriculum developers for math and computer science who were also teaching MEGSSS students at the time, “Let’s find a way to keep this thing going.” And IMACS was born, really out of a parent’s wish to have high quality math and computer science education available to his child.

Q: What’s the latest news at IMACS? What big goals are you and the team working towards?

A: We’re always working on new online computer courses. One initiative that we’re really excited about is our Online Virtual Robotics Lab in which students program robots in a virtual world. It’s entirely Web-based, but the actual physical behavior of real robots is accurately represented, even the appropriate laws of physics. What we’ve put together is a learning environment that integrates science, technology, engineering and math skills in a very natural way. Several schools are already using it as part of the national STEM Initiative, and we expect that number to grow.

Another of our programs that comes to mind is ISLAND, which stands for Interface for Scientific Learning & Natural Discovery. Here we use computer simulations and some really innovative online activities to encourage students to think scientifically and get involved in the learning process. Rather than simply being told dry scientific facts, they learn by doing – making hypotheses, observing simulations, and then developing scientific theories. They’re so engaged that they don’t realize they’re learning the required state standards. You know, people have traditionally thought of IMACS as a place for gifted and talented students, but the truth is that our teaching philosophy is really applicable to all students. With ISLAND, it’s been very gratifying to be able to share the benefits of our unique approach with a wider audience.

Q: Any message for the lucky folks who stumble upon this blog?

A: Yes! Read it. Share it. Tell us what you think. We are listening. There’s such a strong sense of community among our students, parents, teachers and alumni; it’s time we share that enthusiasm online. Obviously, we’d love for this blog and our Facebook page to be go-to places for people interested in taking online computer programming classes. But more importantly, we know from our many years of teaching mathematically talented students that we have a huge amount of knowledge in our heads on how to bring out the best in them, how to help them reach their full potential. Why keep it there? And we also know that our parents and students have great advice to give too. They share their stories with us face-to-face or in letters all the time. Now there are at least two places where these stories can find a wider audience and maybe help someone who is searching for this kind of information.

If you’ve read all the way to the end of this blog post, then our first attempt couldn’t have been all that bad! Do you have a topic to suggest for our blog? Leave a comment.

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