The NCSS Challenge is a programming competition for secondary school students. Unlike many other competitions aimed at students, the Challenge doesn’t just test what they already know, it teaches them how to program along the way. There are three levels, from absolute beginner through to experienced, so it should prove interesting to just about anyone.
The Challenge is based around Python – the language of choice for teaching these days. It uses infrastructure from Grok Learning which, on its face, is much like Code Academy – everything is browser-based, which makes for very simple implementation in a school environment.
The Challenge has been running in Australia for the last 8 years, and this year it’s open to everyone. It is backed by Sydney University’s National Computer Science School from which it appears Grok Learning is a spin-off. You can sign-up for the Challenge alone for $20; or get access to all of the Grok Learning courses for somewhere between $30 and $100.
When I’ve looked at Python in the past one of the hurdles I’ve perceived is that it is far less graphic and game-based that Scratch. With Scratch you start by moving a cartoon cat around the screen and within hours have made a simple game. With Python you have text input and output and your problems tend towards the mathematical. That’s not a bad thing but it’s a challenge for teaching in an informal environment where the students are giving up a lunchtime or after school time.
What I love about the Challenge is that the short-course nature and the competitive environment give an external impetus to getting through the early stages of Python. I’m certainly hoping that the Challenge will encourage some of my students to take a step beyond Scratch and into a world where they have to type in code themselves. Our Senior Junior Programming Correspondent, Callum P, tried the Challenge samples over the weekend and, pleasingly, felt the environment provided a smooth transition from the concepts learned in programming with Scratch. Grok’s approach is a nice combination of amusing and engaging; and the fact you can move at your own pace with instant feedback is constantly encouraging.
For all the gory details see: groklearning.com/challenge.