Thursday, April 30, 2015

Two Semesters Teaching CS2 With C++ and Java

As you may recall, I have been experimenting with a CS2 design that teaches both C++ and Java in a single semester.  I previously reported on the success of the design after teaching a section of majors and non-majors in the off-term.  This semester, we used an iteration of the design with two large sections taught by myself and another instructor.  Most students this semester took CS2 immediately after taking CS1 last semester.

The grades for my section are shown above (the other section's distribution was similar).  As you can see, students generally either "got it" or they didn't.  The average of all final exams in the two sections was about 70%, as was the average final grade (I expected worse for both measures).  No concessions were made to massage grades other than to drop marks for one of eleven assignments (dropping one tutorial mark of eleven and one quiz mark of three was always planned).

Aside from better preparing students for our second year courses, a major goal of the redesign was to ensure that students who do not master the concepts don't continue.  My hope is that the grade distribution above indicates this will happen.  Certainly my design has enabled me to assess deeper understanding of concepts that serve as a foundation to what comes next; such concepts were not prominent (or even existent) in previous designs.

Much of the course design was stable from last term, with some improvements in sequencing and in class code examples.  The topics now progress rather nicely from a low level procedural view of problem solving, all the way up to advanced object-oriented programming.  The new topic list follows.
  • Introduction
    • Introduction to problem solving
    • Introduction to C++
    • Pure puzzles
  • Solving Problems With Arrays (C++)
    • Arrays and structs  (including memory models)
    • Solving problems with arrays
  • Solving Problems With Dynamic Memory (C++)
    • Stack and heap
    • Pointers
    • Dynamic memory
  • Object-Oriented Basics
    • Introduction to objects (including memory models)
    • Introduction to Java
    • Object behaviour (constructors, methods)
    • References and linked lists in Java
    • Shallow vs deep copying in Java
  • Solving Problems With Classes (Java)
    • Goals of class use (encapsulation, information hiding, etc)
    • Complex reference structures
    • Separated presentation design
    • Abstract data types
  • Advanced Object-Oriented Programming (Java)
    • Class hierarchies and inheritance
    • Polymorphism
    • Abstract classes and interfaces
  • Event-Driven Programming (Java)
    • Introduction to Processing
    • Model-view-controller
    • Polymorphism you can see
  • Solving Problems With Recursion (Java)
My slides and code examples (other than code directly from our textbook, Think Like a Programmer) can be found on GitHub.

This summer, the course will be taught according to the current design, and so far it seems the plan is to continue with it next year to give time to evaluate how well students were prepared for second year.  It will be interesting to see whether it will be used long term, and if so, how it will evolve.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Research Update

It's been a while since I last did a research update. With spring (sort of) arriving, there's no better time to reflect on a winter's worth of hard work.

First / Dean Gugler 

Coherent Emergent Stories

Most of my effort in the last 8 months has been dedicated to teaching, but despite this, I managed to make progress on my PhD and thesis project.  In the fall, I spent time putting together my thesis proposal, trying to make the content as close to final-thesis quality as I could.  Then I proposed in December.

Since then, I have been dabbling with a next-iteration prototype to test my story ideas.  Instead of trying to craft an entire game, I am focusing on what I call a "story explorer."  I am designing the prototype to be as data-driven as possible so I can quickly and easily test many different stories and approaches to arranging those stories with my story engine.

Gram's House

The Gram's House project is a labour of love, and I am so excited to see how far it has come since I came up with the idea years ago.

Lately we've been hard at work on the NSF AISL Pathways grant we were awarded to study the effect of story on teaching computer science concepts with games to middle school girls.  We have been working on prototypes for three analog games to be used in informal settings.  The game cover the concepts of data representation (specifically images), data organization (searching and sorting), and algorithms (writing and reading precise instructions).

It has been a lot of fun coming up with the game designs, but also very challenging.  I really want to make sure we have something more than a lightly gamified activity.  I want the games to have inherently interesting and motivating goals that happen to require understanding of our CS concepts to achieve.  I want the games to present interesting and meaningful choices to players, and have at least some degree of replayability.  I'm not sure that our current games have all these features, and I am convinced that we can come up with even better designs.  Hopefully our resident story and game design expert Lorraine Hopping will stay patient with my constant pushing, because she has been an amazing asset to this project and has a lot more experience than I do!

Something else exciting is that two of my first year students may be joining the procedural content generation grant team at Northeastern University in Boston this summer.  I am beyond thrilled to be able to enable this kind of opportunity, and I can't wait to see what they are able to accomplish.

In addition to the summary of Gram's House on my own webpage, we have started an official project site hosted by Northeastern.  We are still working on adding content, but that should be a good place to find information about the project in the future.