Java code in Maths class

Keeping with my New Years resolution of trying new things while teaching Maths, I decided to try some Java coding in Maths class this week.  I teach Maths to first year Computing students and the past few weeks have been spent brushing up on various topics such as fractions, significant digits, prime factorisation, percentages and sequences and series.  These students are also learning their first programming language (Java) at the moment.  To give them a sense of the importance of being able to work through calculations, and create test data for their Java programs, I decided to work through a basic payslip calculation as follows:

John is paid a salary of €45,126 per year.   He is paid monthly.  PRSI is calculated as 8% of the total salary, pension as 2¼% of the total salary and union subscriptions as ¼% of the total salary.  His tax is calculated as 21% of the first €28,000 and 42% of the amount over €28,000.

  1. Calculate the amount he pays in PRSI per month
  2. Calculate the amount he pays in pension contributions per month
  3. Calculate the amount of tax he pays per month
  4. Calculate his union subscriptions per month
  5. Calculate his take home pay per month

So we started by working through the calculations in class.  This gave us some test data with which to check that the program worked as it should.  Next we started to design our program breaking down the tasks into manageable steps starting with calculating the monthly salary.  This allowed us to talk through choosing their variables to hold the data and following good naming conventions when deciding on the variable names.   Rather than let the students loose to just write the program themselves (they are after all less than 3 weeks into learning Java), we worked through the program together.  We started by calculating the monthly pay and prnting this out.  We compiled the program and ran it to make sure we had the correct value using our test data from above.

Next they attempted to code the PRSI calculation after discussing how they might go about it, discussing performance issues around calculating a percentage (for example multiplying by 0.08 rather than multiplying by 8 and dividing by 100).  We then worked through the pension and union calculations in a similar fashion. We did these calculations one at a time, compiling and running after each one and checking to make sure that the calculations were correct.  Some of the students forgot to convert the percentage from 2.25 to 0.0225 etc so having the test data proved very useful.  Finally we tackled the tax calculation and the take home pay again checking that our calculations were correct.

What I wanted them to learn from the process was:

  1. how you need to work through each step in a calculation in order to be able to create a program to do it
  2. the importance of test data to confirm that the program works as it should (it’s not enough for the program to compile and run!!)
  3. how they write their code can have an impact on the performance of the code that they write (many of the students created unnecessary variables and stored intermediate data which was not required)
  4. the maths that they are doing in my class is not seperate from the Java that they are learning in other classes

I did coding with three different groups this week and I think that it was a huge success.  The students seemed to really engage in the process and I hope that they enjoyed it as much as I did and that they learned something in the process.  I chose Java because my students are currently learning Java and will need to be able to test the Java code that they write.  I think that Scratch could be used with younger students to work through Maths topics in a similar way.


Coder Dojo Limerick

After a few false starts, my 12 year old son and I finally made it to the 4th Coder Dojo in Limerick. CoderDojo is a not for profit organisation which aims to teach Software Programming and Design to school kids and older (Aged 8-25). I saw some tweets about Coder Dojo over the last few weeks and felt it would be good to take my son along. I didn’t know what to expect and after attending one I’m not sure that I can do it justice in my explanation here.

We arrived to the Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre at the LIT campus in Limerick to find about 15 people, from age 9 upwards. As it was my sons first Dojo I asked if it would be ok to stay, which was fine with Mark and Eugene, the mentors for the Limerick Coder Dojo. Once everyone got their laptops set up we were put into teams – there were about five new recruits so we were distributed among the teams from last week. We ended up on team 2 with Sarah, another new recruit, and Bojan, an old hand. The format of the day is very much task based, with the tasks giving opportunities to solve problems as we went.

Our first task was to plan what our website should look like. We did this using Balsamiq (, which allowed us to create a mockup of what we were hoping to achieve in our website. It was great to see the teams working together to decide what they wanted. On our team we discussed what we wanted and came up with the idea of having a team logo. Because of the martial arts connotation we decided on a Ninja as our logo. Discussion ensued around whether we should draw a ninja or use an image already created. Common sense prevailed once we realised that none of us were particularly good at drawing! Once we found an image we liked, we logged into WordPress to make changes to the website that had been started by the group last week. We made some changes to the background images and then tried to upload our image, with very little luck.

By this stage it was time for lunch. Over lunch, we discovered that one of the tasks for the afternoon was to discover why we couldn’t upload the image. So after lunch we set about researching what the problem might be. Throughout the day Mark and Eugene were moving between the teams seeing how they were getting on and asking questions which gently nudged us in the direction of a solution to the problem. In this case the problem was to do with file permissions. Once we got this sorted, our next task was to add functionality to the website to allow a user to login or logout. This required a change to the PHP code underlying the website. Again we needed to research the problem, find the code we needed to add, and then figure out where to put it. After a couple of attempts we managed to get it working just in time for the end of the Dojo.

I wasn’t sure if David had enjoyed the day, he seemed to enjoy the early part but lost interest a bit when we were changing the PHP code. On the way home though he left me in no doubt that he had great fun and was looking forward to the next one. I have to say I enjoyed it myself and what I loved most was the relaxed atmosphere which allowed the young, and not so young, to learn by trying to do things. The other bit that really worked for me was the focus on getting your hands dirty by looking at the code behind the WordPress content. Next week is Scratch week so we’re really looking forward to that.

Thanks to Mark, Eugene, Sarah and Bojan for making our first Dojo so enjoyable 🙂

More information on Coder Dojo can be found at

Global Celebrations and Festivities

I’m really enjoying my interaction with #ccGlobal, the connected classrooms project (more details at  From my initial contact with Liam Dunphy (@LiamDunphy) and Pam Moran (@PamMoran) on Twitter back in early July, I have progressed to participating in a couple of Google+ hangouts to discuss ideas.  These discussions have resulted in the start of a number of projects to connect classrooms globally.  To support the #ccGlobal project a Ning has been set up at  Participation in the Ning is for members only (DM your email address to me @pamelaaobrien if you’re interested in becoming a member).  I still can’t quite believe that I’m now dropping things like Nings, G+ hangouts etc. into my normal conversations!

Anyway, on to Global Celebrations and Festivities.   Through my interactions on Twitter and Google+, I have had some great conversations with enthusiastic educators across the world.  My daughter is 8 and is in 3rd class in school.  One wish that I have for her, and for my son, is that they will get exposed to some of these fantastic opportunities to connect with kids in other countries.  During a conversation with Michael Thornton (@mthornton78), a teacher in Charlottesville in Virginia, the possibility of creating a connect between my daughters’ class and Michael’s class was mentioned.  Michael has very successfuly used Skype with his students to connect with children all over the world (see for more details) so I was hoping that we could have a Skype session between the two classes.  I spoke to my daughters teacher last week and, while she is hesitant in her use of technology, she is very keen to get involved.  Once I got the go ahead I started a twitter conversation with Michael and Global Celebrations and Festivities was born, with input from Roy Mitchell (@roygmitchell), Ira Socol (@irasocol) and Liam Dunphy.  This for me is the real power of Twitter, a conversation over the course of approx. 2 hours on a Friday night in Ireland (which was early evening in the US and early Saturday morning in Sydney) has resulted in a project that I for one am really excited about.  The conversation continued on Saturday morning (Irish time) with others joining in the discussion.

So the plan is to have a Google+ hangout, which will allow us to connect up to 10 classrooms, to discuss the traditions surrounding celebrating various holidays during the year.  Our first hangout is scheduled for Halloween to allow the children to tell each other how they will celebrate Halloween. The intention is to follow up with further hangouts during the year for other holidays.  To support the hangout, we’ve discussed various ideas such as the students creating cards which they could post to other classes, sharing artwork virtually etc.  I’m sure that as the project develops, the classes will be connecting in lots of different ways.  As I’ve already said I’m really excited about this project and can’t wait for the first hangout 🙂

As always please share your thoughts, ideas and expressions of interest.

Why I love Twitter

I first heard about Twitter at an event in Tipperary Institute a few years ago, I think it might have been the ICT in Education conference (@ictedu).  I work with Bernie Goldbach (@topgold) and he told us all about this new site where you could share what you were doing with the world.  To be honest I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by this proclamation (sorry Bernie!) and promptly forgot about Twitter.  My own Twitter journey began back  in February 2010.  I attended my first CESI Meet in Portlaoise, where it seemed everyone was tweeting.  On my drive home from Portlaoise that night, I decided to sign up for Twitter to see what all the hype was about.  So when I got home at 11.30 pm, I created my Twitter account and started following people.  To say that my husband thought I had finally lost my marbles is probably the understatement of the century 🙂

My initial interaction with Twitter was tentative to say the least.  For me, figuring out who to follow was probably the most difficult part.  I was also very conscious of what I was tweeting, so erred on the side of caution at the start.  My initial tweets were sent to commend the CESI team on a great CESI Meet and conference on the following day.  After that initial foray into Twitterland I didn’t really think about Twitter much.  My next interaction came as I was organising the 2010 ICT in Education conference (@ictedu) in Tipperary Institute with John Jennings (@seoinin).  John had embraced Twitter and so I decided to try again.  I connected with some people who were either presenting at the conference or attending. Again, my interactions were tentative at best, and again Twitter was forgotten about for a while.

You might be forgiven for questioning my title for this post at this stage.  After all it is titled “Why I  love Twitter”, but all I’ve done so far is tell you of my non interaction with it.  What changed for me was the CESI conference in 2011.  Again I went to Portlaoise, and again lots of people were tweeting.  At this stage I didn’t have a smartphone or an iPad, so for me Twitter was something I checked in with sporadically on my laptop.  At the conference, I got the chance to work with the iPad and, as I’ve mentioned previously, the love affair began.  I was lucky enough to be able to get the use of an iPad through work, and suddenly Twitter seemed so much more accessible.  I began to follow more people, who gave me an insight into the possibilities that exist in lots of different areas.

I used Twitter extensively in the run up to the ICT in Education conference in 2011.  I think that the conference this year was probably our best yet and I firmly believe that this was due in no small part to the power of Twitter.  I connected with so many people, who both presented at or attended the conference.  Twitter also helped us to spread the word about the conference.

Initially, the people I followed were mainly from Ireland. Twitter gave me the opportunity to chat with people across primary, secondary and third level here in Ireland.  I got involved in the #edchatie conversations on a Monday night, which have been organised by Fred Boss (@fboss) since March 2011.  This is an opportunity for people to discuss matters relating to Education in Ireland.  Getting involved in these conversations gave me more people to follow and really made me think about how I do what I do.  Summaries of the #edchatie conversations can be found at

Through the #edchatie conversations I also connected with educators across the world.  Through these connections I have become involved in the connected classrooms project #ccGlobal.  This is an initiative started by Liam Dunphy (@liamdunphy) and Pam Moran (@pammoran) and its aim is to connect classrooms across the world. Further details of this great initiative can be found at

So back to why I love Twitter:

1.  I have connected with some amazing people who have pushed me to try new things.  Before I began to use Twitter I had a Facebook account and a LinkedIn account, both of which I rarely used.  I now have Google Plus, Edmodo, Ning, Delicious, Evernote accounts to name but a few.  I’ve also started this blog and have started podcasting.

2. I have gotten involved in some great initiatives, like #edchatie and #ccGlobal

3. I have found lots people who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  Many of these people are willing to share these experiences with others at our ICT in Education conference.  For this generosity I am truly grateful.

4. I have been able to virtually attend conferences that I can’t attend in person by following tweets from these conferences.

These are just some of the many reasons why Twitter has now become the first thing I check in the morning!

As always, any thoughts, ideas etc. gladly welcomed.

Why I decided to try Podcasting?

I’ve heard people talking about podcasting for the last few years, but have never seriously thought about trying it out for myself.  What made me decide to try it out now was a workshop at the CESI conference in Portlaoise last February. The workshop was by Mark Pentleton (@markpentleton) and was a practical session on podcasting and eBook production.  We used iPads (this is where my love affair with the iPad began!) and the Pages software to put text and audio together.  On the drive home, my mind buzzing with ideas from the conference, I thought that producing notes with audio for my Maths classes might help students to grasp the concepts better.  Currently I produce class notes and tutorial sheets in Microsoft Word, which I upload to the college Moodle site.  We then work through the notes and tutorial sheets in class.  When working our way through the notes, we will often go through different examples, usually made up on the fly, as I find that the students learn more when things don’t work out cleanly.

While this has worked OK for the past few years, I have been looking for other ways to teach what I teach. A problem I often encounter teaching Maths in 1st year in college is that students come in with Maths baggage.  This commonly involves either sheer terror at the thought of Maths class or complete apathy, neither of which help!  So this year I’m going to shake up what I do, in a bid to overcome these problems.

This will involve a few things, one of which is podcasting.  I think that being able to see someone go through examples and hear their explanations will help the students to get a better understanding of what they are doing and why.  During the last 8 years teaching Maths, I am often shocked that students can sketch a parabola on a given interval, without having any idea of the properties of the quadratic function or how to sketch the function if they are not given the interval (apologies to those for whom the above makes no sense, but the mathematician in me has to come out somewhere!).  So I’m hoping that my podcasts will allow me to reinforce this context for students.  They will also allow me to remind students of things that they already know!  To supplement my own podcasts I have also been sourcing video clips on YouTube, which work through some of the concepts that I will be teaching.

The other change to what I do, will involve putting the Maths that I teach into context.  I teach Maths to 1st year computing students on courses such as Games Design and Development, Smart Sustainable Technologies, Computing and IT Support.  My plan is to incorporate guest lectures into my teaching. This will allow me to bring in people working in these areas, to talk to the students about how they use Maths in what they do.  I hope to supplement these lectures with video clips and examples of applications of Maths.  Finally I will also get the students to research applications of Maths in their chosen course of study.  I intend to use a wiki to get the students to discuss these applications, which is where my final resolution comes in.

So now you know where I’m coming from, feel free to share your thoughts, ideas and resources.