5-6, 7-8, 9-12, Advanced Topics, AP Computer Science Principles, Computer Science I, Robotics

Activities for Activating Prior Knowledge

With anxieties about school high and students learning remotely and in my classroom, I knew it would be extra important to start the year off positively. Since I always feel short on time, I try to find out what they already know while doing fun activities that set the tone for my classroom.   I want students to know that it’s okay to laugh and have fun, try something even if they’re not sure, ask questions, and work together.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Balderdash – Balderdash is a board game in which the players make up convincing definitions of strange sounding – but real – words.  When I play with students, I have them work in small groups to come up with their definitions of common computer science terms and then the class votes individually on which one is the best.  If you want a little competition, the group with the most points wins!  I don’t put the “correct” definition out for voting, but when we get to that topic during the year, I remind them of what definition they voted on and make any adjustments to match the definition I want them to use.  My list of words usually includes: algorithm, program, conditional, iteration, variable, function.  Need a hybrid learning variation?  Use the “collaborate” feature on Nearpod to have each student submit their definition and allow the class to vote using the “like” feature.  When doing it this way, I’ve found that allowing a few votes to each student works well.
  • Skribbl.io – Skribblio is another super fun game to introduce or assess understanding of vocabulary.  An online version of pictionary, you can play a game with random words or customize your word list.  Each student will be given three words to choose from to draw while the rest of the class guesses what they’re drawing.  Usually amid the laughter, there are questions about the words or what they already know about the concept.  My list for robotics this year: Robot, Light Sensor, Arm, Computer, Temperature sensor, Speaker, Self-driving car, assembly line, motor, humanoid, Wall-e, R2-D2, artificial intelligence, code, programmer, C-3PO.  Especially great for any style of synchronous learning!
  • Paper folding – Introductory CS classes at all levels usually start with some version of an activity where giving precise and ordered directions is key, just like a computer programmer will have to do.  In this version, I ask students to sit back to back and one person gives the other directions on how to fold a paper airplane (or origami or any random paper fold).  The person hearing the directions cannot ask any questions.  Usually the resulting paper fold is nothing like the person intended, and we discuss the importance of precise directions, not making assumptions about what someone knows, and how this is similar/different to how a computer processes directions.  Need an adjustment for 2020 learning? Use a chat like Google Hangouts to send the instructions in text.
  • Hive Mind – Good friends of ours introduced us to this game and it became a favorite game during our shelter in place because of how well it worked virtually or in person.  The goal of the game isn’t to be right; it’s to write down the same answer(s) as the rest of your “hive” or group!  Though the board game has some additional mechanics, I’ve adapted the game to be played without the board in small groups of 4 or 5.  This year, we used the game as an icebreaker and team building activity for the first day of 6th grade, and a few students told me they went home and played it at the dinner table!  You could change up the questions to be used as an introduction or review for a unit.  (Instructions for play and handout for students)