Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Connecting Computer Science

I taught the first lecture of my first undergrad course last night. As I've mentioned before, it's a class called Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences, and it's not a required course, though many students use it to fulfil their science credit.

In the past, the course has focused on learning the basics (very basics) of computer usage, and delved fairly deeply into the advanced features of MS Word, Excel, and Access. While I don't want to say that these things aren't useful, I felt like there was a serious lack of actual science in this course. The students take it specifically because it is easy (and many were willing to admit this).

I also thought that, as a student, I would find it painfully boring to sit and watch an instructor go through the slides used in the past. I don't want to suggest that this reflects poorly on the previous instructors of this course in any way; in fact, the slides are really detailed and make amazing references. That's why I took the time to not only post them on our WebCT page, but also list the topics covered in each set of slides so students could see what might interest or help them. But I had a vision of a much more interactive class where higher learning would take place. The in-class slides have very little text (but do have some in the notes section), and I've even been using CS Unplugged activities with good success so far.

All this to set up the reasoning behind the first assignment I created for the students. This assignment is all about picking a topic of interest, like a hobby, and researching links between this topic and computer science. My vision was to make students feel like computing was actually interesting when looked at through the right lens.

Here is the basic description of the assignment:
- Choose a topic of interest. The most obvious choice is some hobby of yours, but you can also choose an area that is related to your degree or anything else you'd like to learn more about.

- Find out how computing can help. For example, photographers might benefit from the advanced image capabilities of the latest version of Photoshop.

- Look for specific connections to computing. Some questions to ask to get you started: What kinds of problems are faced? What can't be done easily by hand, or what is very tedious to do manually? Are there algorithms that can help solve these problems? What kinds of computer systems and/or software packages are used? How might people benefit from learning to think logically or computationally?

- Use Internet and library resources, and ask people who know a lot about the topic to find out more.

- Write a report of at least 1000 words summarizing your findings. Submit your report in Microsoft Word or PDF format, and be sure to include a bibliography.

- Be sure to preview the 'grading form' above to see how your work will be assessed.

Struggle with writing? Book an appointment right away with Carleton's Writing Tutorial Services.

Struggle with research? Get help at the library.
The grading form covers five main areas: creativity, writing style (spelling/grammar/flow), description of the topic, links to computing, and bibliography.

Students have already been checking with me that their ideas are ok, and so far, I have to say... they are great! I'm really happy to see the creativity happening, and am looking forward to reading some of the results. Maybe some students will give me permission to post their reports here.


Angelica said...

What a great assignment topic! Hope to hear some of the ideas they come up with later.

Ed said...

How exciting! Your first assignment! It sounds like it will certainly be engaging. I hope you keep us updated throughout the semester about this class.

Professor Pat said...

I teach a required Women's Studies course in Women and Computers and this sounds like a great idea for getting students to see how course is relevant to them. How did your students do on the assignment?

Many of my students would pick their future careers where most useful would be RSS readers, Delicious bookmarks, wikis, blogs, etc., but most have never heard of any of these before taking the course, so do I need some pointers or suggestions for them to get started with?

Gail Carmichael said...

I actually got a really wide range of interesting topics, from using Skype etc for dance to fashion design to rehab technology. The assignment and some suggestions in class seemed to be enough. I think mentioning hobbies was a good way to think beyond school needs.

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