Saturday, April 30, 2011

Making 'Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences' Even More Awesome

I'm getting ready to teach our introductory computer course for arts and social science majors again this summer.  If you read my blog around this time last year, you already know that this course used to focus mostly on software usage with a very small dash of binary numbers and data representation thrown in.

Return to Washington Square Park, Aug 2009 - 69

While I'm all for helping these students learn the more advanced functionality of word processors and spreadsheets, I don't think it's really enough for a course that counts as a science elective.  That's why I redesigned the course last year to include some actual computer science.  I also made a big effort to help the students see how computer science was relevant to their own interests.  This year I'm continuing with that theme while trying to make the content all the more awesome using the great feedback I managed to get from last year's students in an anonymous and informal survey.

I was originally hoping that those who taught in the fall and winter terms would use at least some of my material.  Unfortunately, both instructors continued to use the old stuff.  I can't entirely blame them - it would take a fair amount of work to dissect my material and figure out a way to present it as their own.  I also had a lot of activities better suited to my smaller classes than their 300+ student lectures (I know how I would adapt it, but it's much easier to do that when you came up with the material in the first place).  All this to say that as I am hoping I can adjust things just enough that others will be willing to give it a try.

I kept my objectives the same as last year:
  1. Gain an appreciation of what computer science is and how it relates to the arts and social sciences.
  2. Practice computational thinking.
  3. Learn about the software and tools that will help you succeed in an undergraduate program.
I rearranged the topics a bit, but kept them mostly the same (though I do plan on expanding some, such as the HCI section):
  • Introduction to computer science and computational thinking
  • Introduction to Microsoft Word
  • Basic programming with Scratch
  • Binary numbers and data representation
  • Algorithms
  • Introduction to Microsoft Excel
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Introduction to Microsoft PowerPoint
  • Using the Internet effectively: useful software and tools
  • Open source software
Finally, these are the general assignments I have in mind:
  • Software tutorial in MS Word: choose software not presented in class that will be useful to them in the future and create a tutorial complete with screen shots, etc
  • Programming in Scratch: set up a couple of specific exercises for them to complete that will teach them conditionals/loops/variables/broadcast; have them complete an interactive project of their choice
  • Binary numbers, algorithms, and data representation: some conceptual questions followed by a couple of programming exercises in Scratch demonstrating the main concepts; some short Excel exercises
  • HCI and Internet: Choose an area of interest (hobby, degree major, etc) and propose a new piece of technology that could improve activities within that area; use the HCI concepts to explain why the technology is designed well; write a Word document and create a compelling PowerPoint presentation; set up a web page to showcase this work (worth a bit more than the other assignments as it involves more work)
With more opportunities for feedback through in-class quizzes and guest speakers from academia and industry, I'm confident that this course will be interesting and useful for those who choose to make the most of it!


Shrutarshi Basu said...

I think spreadsheets are the perfect gateway drug to computer science. They're not perfect but I think they are good for showing how you can automate common tasks and then you can pull that out into how programming is a more general tool of solving automation problems.

Gail Carmichael said...

I'm definitely going to cover them, and do so after seeing how to program in Scratch and after learning a couple of algorithms. Hopefully they will be able to see and make use of the connections.

On the other hand, spreadsheets are SO. BORING. :)

Oli said...

Hey... spreadsheets can be entertaining.. to the right mindset. :P The satisfaction of manipulating a vast spread of data and forcing out some useful metric.

Gail Carmichael said...

That sounds exciting to geeks like us, not non-CS majors. ;)

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