Polar Bears Dice Activity in AP Computer Science

A few of years ago, computers weren’t ready for AP Computer Science the first day of school. So, on the first day of class, I resurrected an opening-day activity I had used in Physics: the Polar Bears around an Ice Hold Puzzle. There are a lot of similarity between my physics and computer science classes; so, I thought the activity would be a good fit.

dice

I was surprised that not only was the activity a good fit, it was more successful in the context of computer science than it was in physics. I’ve done it every year since, even as the computers are working on the first day.

Our discussion after everyone solved the puzzle focused on how this activity was an analogy for how our class will solve computer science challenges throughout the year:

  • You may feel frustrated as you try to figure computer science concepts and challenges out. That’s okay.
  • Computer science concepts and challenges are hard to understand until you know the “rules of the game.”
  • But, once you discover the rules, computer science concepts and challenges often seems easy and you may be surprised that others don’t understand.
  • However, remember that you didn’t always understand.
  • When you discover the rules and understand without someone just telling you the “answer”, you are excited.
  • The journey to understanding is very important. So, no one is going to tell you the answer, but we’re all here to support each other on our journeys.
  • Being told the “answer” at most gives you one answer that you didn’t know.
  • Learning to think critically and arrive at the answer with support develops a skill that you will use to find many answers.
  • Students who solve the challenge should offer suggestions as to how to reframe the game that helped others solve the problem without directly telling them the answer.

The reason that this activity worked even better in the context of computer science is that it also serves as an excellent example of best practices for algorithm design and debugging. As we continued to try and solve the puzzle, students introduced several important ideas:

  • if you just keep guessing, you may never solve the puzzle
  • reduce the scope of the problem (roll three dice instead of six)
  • test special cases (make all dice show five)
  • change a variable and see the effect (change one die from a five to a one).

I still end the activity by “assigning” grades based on how quickly a student solved the puzzle as described in the original post.

It was a great first day, and we didn’t spend any time on the computers!

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