Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Painting Posthuman Saga

I backed Posthuman Saga on Kickstarter after talking to a gaming buddy about it. I knew relatively little about the game, but I had never painted any post-apocalyptic minis before. I think I must have been one of the first North American backers to get my copy, and over the past few days, I've been painting the characters from the core set. Turns out, painting post-apoc figures isn't that much different from medieval fantasy characters—more glasses, fewer fireballs, and about the same amount of backpacks.

I started out by working on the bases. I used the technique I talked about in my post about the Thunderstone Quest miniatures, where I laid down superglue, sprinkled in a little coarse, medium, and fine grit, and then set the glue with baking powder. Here's a process shot of how they looked before priming. (The Deluxe Edition mutant doll figure is shown here too, but I haven't painted it yet; that will be part of the next batch.)

I followed this with zenithal priming from the airbrush, although I'll quickly mention that I've been having some trouble with my airbrush. It's not clear to me if I need to replace some particular part or if this cheap brush just needs to be replaced and upgraded. I'll think about that a little harder on my birthday, perhaps.

I believe I drybrushed the bases with Beige Brown, although it may have been Flat Earth. The two colors are very similar. Increasing amounts of Ivory were added to get decent highlights.

Here are the figures in the order I painted them.

I started with the Guard. I had been away from all miniature painting for months until Christmas, when my family and I did our one-night painting of the miniatures from Clank Legacy. My family and I have also been working on something of a secret project that I look forward to writing about later, but suffice it to say for now that it involves short painting sessions as well. Working on the Guard reminded me how pleasant it is to sit in my office in the evening, listen to a podcast or some tunes, and make a plastic thing a bit prettier.

I started in on this figure by doing thin layers over the zenithal priming, something of a speedy approach as I used on the mobs in Journeys in Middle Earth. Really, I was thinking that I would get these characters done pretty quickly so I could get the game to the table. As I set into my chair and made progress on my Watch Later list on YouTube, I decided I would take a little more time on them. This was an in-progress decision, and it turned out having an interesting implication: the pants are done in a thin layer over the zenithal priming, whereas the rest of the miniature is painted in my more conventional style, mixing two-brush blending and layering as needed. It gives him a subtle kind of contrast that the other miniatures don't have.

I will also quickly mention that up until not long ago, his sneakers were bright white and red. I couldn't decide if I wanted to do any light weathering on these figures or not. I decided to do a little around the feet before varnishing them, and he definitely looks better this way than when he had out-of-the-box kicks.

The glasses were fun to paint. I borrowed from Ghool's Quick Tip about how to paint glasses, and I think the results are pretty good.

This is the Cage Fighter. I think she's the most visually impressive of the lot. The sculpt is good, and I think I did a good job pulling out the contrast.

All of these figures have prominent card art, which you can see on the Kickstarter campaign page. The art for this character has her in checkered pants, but I didn't want to take that deep a dive. I picked the most prominent orange color and used that. I thought about going in and adding more weathering to all the metal spiky bits, but I decided to keep them pretty clean.

Here is the Scout. His pants caused me some grief because they're so incredibly wrinkled, like they just don't fit. I suppose one must scavenge what one can. On my first pass, I painted it a solid color and then used a wash, but this got it too dark. I repainted in a more appropriate tone, but not completely opaque, and then painted in the shadows. After one more glaze of orange, I got it where I wanted it.

From the front, I think he looks pretty darned good. The back of this guy is another story. There's just nothing happening there. His jacket is almost completely smooth, and the bag over his shoulder is wholly uninteresting. I could have painted in some more details here, but again, I was feeling a tension between beauty and time. I decided it's good enough for now. If this guy turns out to be a favorite figure in a favorite game, maybe I'll address it again, but for now, he's table-ready.

This is the Scavenger. He's a really interesting character, and I love the combination of dark skin, pale clothes, dreadlocks, and overflowing backpack: he has a lot of texture. I still struggle to paint dark skinned miniatures from lack of practice. There can be so much rich tonal variation, but the highlights can still go all the way up. I need to be careful not to exaggerate or make it look cartoony. I think I did an OK job here, and fortunately, there's a lot of other focus areas to take away from just the flesh colors.

I saw another painter's rendition of this figure where he gave him different colored shoes. There's ambiguity in the card art, which has a sort of graphic novel style. I decided to echo the colors from the rest of his outfit back down into his feet, and I think this helps tie some of the pieces together. For example, the purple backpack color is repeated on his socks, which I think gives some balance. Like the Scout's pants, I like the idea that this tough-looking apocalypse survivor doesn't care what you think about his purple backpack: it's big, it fits, and it works for carrying odds and ends.

Painting glass bottles is always tricky, since you cannot paint clear. I decided to make it look like he's carrying along a half-empty Bombay Sapphire. The blue comes out of nowhere in the composition, but it makes me laugh.

Finally, here is the Scientist. Her skin is more of a milk chocolate tone, but very little of it is showing in the sculpt. The art has her peering through the glasses, but again, you can't paint clear. Originally, I did the glasses in black transitioning to magenta at the bottom, but there was an unclear edge at the top of the glasses then: not much contrast. The more I looked at her, the more I thought about what the future used to look like: magenta and cyan. Like the blue on the Scavenger, she gets an out-of-left-field shock of cyan on her glasses. It draws attention to her face and makes her look like a synthwave album, both of which are good.

After a first pass at the jacket, I ended up doing a black glaze over the whole thing to tone down highlights gone too far. The glaze medium left her jacket looking shiny, but I couldn't shake the idea that the highlights were still not right. I'm glad I revisited them, even though it was kind of tricky to paint: once she was matte varnished, it confirmed that the extra highlights on the upturned parts of the jacket were needed. It would have been too much black otherwise.

Here they are, all together. It was a fun set to paint, and I think they will look good on the table; I look forward to trying the game this weekend. I'll mention here (so I can look it up later) that the bases were ringed in Americana Dark Chocolate, which is a nice color but took three coats to get anything like good coverage. Usually I just slop on some black craft paint and am done with it. I thought about gluing on some burnt grass flock, but the more I looked at them, I decided I liked the spartan wasteland as it was.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Thinking about High Impact Practices

I have been selected to be part of my university's High Impact Practice Implementation and Assessment Task Force. The task force chair has been good about sending agendas along with work for us to do in preparation for the meetings. In preparation for a meeting next week, we were asked to prepare responses to a few questions. I decided to write my responses here on the blog, in the spirit of No Wasted Writing. (Of course, I am doing this after having sent a novella of an email back to a student, so clearly, I need to be more prudent about No Wasted Writing.)

For some context, it's important to know that the university's strategic plan has defined High Impact Practices to include undergraduate research, immersive learning, study abroad or study away, and societal issue or global challenge. This is a subset of those talked about as HIPPs by AAC&U.

I'll typeset the questions in italics and then give my answer to each below it.

What is the purpose of high impact practices to you? To you, what do high impact practices endeavor to accomplish?

High-impact practices engage students in authentic knowledge work. Student learning is strengthened and deepened by having it take place in the context of meaningful work. The credited learning experience becomes focused on an extrinsic, persistent goal rather than an intrinsic, ephemeral one.

The goal of the experience remains learner enrichment rather than community impact. If external audiences benefit from high-impact practices, this is of course beneficial. However, our real focus is on the transformation and enrichment of the learner. This perspective allows us to form partnerships and accept risk, rather than recruiting clients and becoming risk-averse. My experience has been that students often learn more from failure, and that the transformations in the students far exceed any extrinsic benefit.

What are THREE strengths of BSU's high impact practices? (You might have hundreds of ideas—please identify the top three)
  1. The Provost's funding for Immersive Learning projects gives faculty support to experiment with new ideas prior to formalization in the course catalog.
  2. Many of the faculty involved in high-impact practices are talented and committed scholars who want the best for their students.
  3. There are resources devoted to celebrating the success and spreading the word about projects, for example, through the Immersive Learning Awards program, Community Partner Awards program, Immersive Learning Showcase, and other university marketing efforts. These frame this work as important to the university's identity and narrative.
What are the THREE weaknesses of BSU's high impact practices?
  1. Creative projects are subject to the tyranny of higher education conventions such as 15-week semesters, scheduling around other courses, letter grades, and the inability to "fire" students from a team. These directly contradict most of what we know about how knowledge work gets done.
  2. There is dissonance between the message that we value high-impact practices and the advice that is given to junior faculty.
  3. Departmental and college control over the implementation of high impact practices is a disincentive to multidisciplinary collaborations. The de facto standard is to design experiences for your own majors, regardless of the problem being addressed. Anything else requires inordinate, unrewarded effort.
Bonus answer: Failure to hyphenate the adjective phrase "high-impact".

When students (undergraduate and graduate) graduate from BSU with at least one high impact practice...
  1. What do we want them to know?
  2. What do we want the students to be able to do?
  3. What do we want students to value?
I assume the author wants discipline-agnostic answers rather than discipline-specific ones, which makes this a little challenging to address. However, I was able to pull from my notes about my own department's search for a vision, and this gave me a way to frame my answers.

We want them to know:
  • Fundamental concepts, vocabulary, and techniques of their academic majors and minors.
  • Some advanced topics within their academic majors.
I realize that these items are not clearly related to high-impact practices: they could be said of any student who graduates. It was originally unintentional, but upon reflection, I think it is right. The high-impact practices should strengthen and secure a student's knowledge—even if that is because the experience made them question or doubt it.

We want them to be able to:
  • Self-correct
    • That is, a student should be able to reflect on what they are making or doing, identify their assumptions, and change direction based on this analysis. This is the competent level of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, and it is an indicator of reflective practice.
  • Communicate ideas clearly and effectively to different audiences.
  • Ask good, clear questions.
  • Work respectfully and productively on a multidisciplinary team.
We want them to value:
  • The responsibility they have to their team, their employer, and their community
  • The dignity of the individual
  • Lifetime learning
  • Virtuous living: that virtues are habits of the mind developed through intentional practice and self-mastery. Essentially, this is beatitudo, the classic question of what is good in life.
Please feel free to share your own responses or reactions in the comments.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Games of 2019

Happy New Year! As has been my tradition the past three years (2018, 2017, 2016), I am pausing to reflect on the board games I played this past year. I logged 526 plays, which is slightly less than last year. Honestly, I'm shocked, because I don't remember any dry spells here. In the last few days, I logged 17 plays of BONK, which takes just a few minutes to play, and I thought that would inflate my numbers. Perhaps it was because I worked like mad this summer on Kaiju Kaboom, whereas the previous year I spent many afternoons with Gloomhaven.

These are the games I played at least ten times this past year. I've combined families of games where I have logged them separately but they are really the same game, just with expansions or legacy forms.

  • Kingdomino (41)
  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Core Set and Curse of the Crimson Throne (41)
  • BONK (19)
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and Legacy (23)
  • Azul (14)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Tempe of Elemental Evil (14)
  • Quiddler (14)
  • Thunderstone Quest (14)
  • Call to Adventure (13)
  • Arcadia Quest (12)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth (12)
  • Fabled Fruit (11)
  • Gloomhaven (11)
  • The Mind (11)
  • Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar (10)
One of the major milestones this year is that my second son (9) has been able to join in much more of the "core gamer" games. In some ways, this started Christmas 2018, when he joined my wife, my oldest son, and me in playing Charterstone, which remains one of my favorite gaming memories. Over the year, he learned Middle Earth Quest, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and Thunderstone, Quest. My two older sons and I played through the first campaign of Journeys in Middle Earth and a campaign of Arcadia Quest, and with my wife, we played a campaign of Temple of Elemental Evil and got 7th Continent back out and played—and beat—the first curse. My wife and I had tried that one when I first got the game and had no such luck. The four of us also played through the new core set and expansion for Pathfinder Adventure Card Game this summer. That was probably too much PACG all at once, as we were pretty burned out by the end. 

One of the other big winners this year was clearly Kingdomino. This game is fun for everybody, including my youngest son (4). The fact that he plays it, and generally plays it well, makes it a go-to game for family board game time.  My third son (6) is showing great promise in games as well. He learned to play Ticket to Ride this year, and he also learned the basics of deckbuilding games, including the mash shuffle. He loves to play Clank!, which is great, because that also is a consistently fun game. Perhaps there is some irony, then, that as much as I am enjoying Clank! Legacy, I am finding it less consistent than vanilla Clank!. Just last night, I messed up a rule, which had material consequences; every legacy game I have played fails the robustness test in the face of tired or confused players.

My oldest son and I hit a wall in Gloomhaven recently, where neither one of us is about to level up, and we're just not sure where to go next to solve the deeper mysteries of the world. I bought the expansion but still haven't painted the figure. One of us would have to become the new character, and the other person would stay locked in their other, which is already at or near maximum level. I feel like we should try the expansion anyway, in part because I just read Childres' end-of-year blog post about it, but part of me wonders if we would have more fun with a reboot once the sequel releases.

As of today, my games h-index is 22, meaning that there are 22 games that I have played 22 times. My player h-index is 17, meaning that there are 17 people with whom I have played 17 times.

Let's look at how my top games of all time have changed. Last year, I included those games that I had played 20 or more times, but that list keeps getting longer. Hence, I'm going to make the cut at 25 this year.
  • Gloomhaven (66)
  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, all versions (57)
  • Crokinole (56)
  • Animal Upon Animal (54)
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and Legacy (53)
  • Carcassonne (44)
  • Kingdomino (41)
  • Camel Up (40)
  • Rhino Hero: Super Battle (37)
  • Labyrinth (36)
  • Thunderstone Quest (36)
  • Quiddler (33)
  • Runebound Third Edition (33)
  • Reiner Knizia's Amazing Flea Circus (32)
  • Terror in Meeple City (30)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil (28)
  • Stuffed Fables (27)
  • Go Nuts for Donuts (25)
  • Obstacles (25)
  • Race for the Galaxy (25)
I think that this is a healthy mix of kids' games and strategy games for someone with four boys. It's still the case that one of my very favorite games is Mage Knight: The Board Game, but that one is harder to get to the table, so at 21 plays, it didn't make the cut. It's at the same level as Champions of Midgard, which the four older members of the family all love and which, despite its preponderance of pieces, we can get set up and torn down faster because everyone can help.

This year, I also logged some of the video games I played (and also, some of the books I read), inspired by Michael Bayne's post and project last year. I even started the year logging my general activity, but I found this too cumbersome and not interesting enough to continue. There were a few games that I dabbled in, particularly free ones from the Epic Games Store. Other games, I played more seriously as a hobbyist. Briefly, these were Just Cause 3, Star Control Origins, Slay the Spire, Donut County, Dead Cells, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, Thimbleweed Park, Minit, Defense Grid: The Awakening, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, and Disco Elysium. I could write more about these video games, but I think for now I just want to mention the contrast between the last two. Hand of Gilgamech was entirely competent. I enjoyed playing it, but the writing, characters, and plot were absolutely uninteresting. While not painful or cringeworthy, the dialog felt completely uninspired. Compare this to Disco Elysium, where in the first three minutes of gameplay, you have a rich vocabulary, distinct character voices, and a compelling hook. Disco Elysium, which I bought because so many people have said it's really good, is really good. There are parts that I think are incongruent, which I would like to write about at some point, but that's not going to be today. The fact that one can talk about incongruity, though, implies that the world and story are worth talking about. One final video game note: Mutant Year Zero's story surprised me at one point, which was a great delight for a jaded grognard like me.

Thanks for reading. May you have an excellent year in games!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A happy cat story

I'm cleaning my home office as part of the end-of-the-year activities. I want to share here one of the most curious things I came across. My kids make a lot of crafty things, but this particular one really tickles my fancy.

My youngest son is four, and he recently learned how to play Ticket to Ride: First Journey. After playing this with him, some of the other boys and I got into a game of Clank! The youngest one was flitting around the table and making a bunch of noise, so I tried to think of a good creative challenge to occupy him. First Journey was still on the table, and something about the art caught my eye.

I pointed to the orange cat that is being held by the girl in yellow. Sarcastically, I pointed out how very happy the cat seemed to be.
I mean, look at that face. It's practically a meme in the making.

I suggested that my son create his own drawing of that ever-so-happy cat. He was very excited and ran off to the crafting table. He came back in a few minutes with this:

It's rather faintly drawn in pencil on lined paper, so here's a digitally-enhanced version.

Now, look at that face! That cat is actually happy, and it would love to be held by a girl in yellow on the cover of any train-related board game.

He took a separate sheet of paper, rolled it up, and  taped it behind the drawing so that the whole thing would stand up. I believe he had just seen the Mr. Whiskers standee from the Clank! Expeditions: Gold and Silk expansion, and this inspired him to make his also a freestanding piece.

It was back in 2011 that I wrote about my oldest son's being inspired by a game box and recreating the artwork in a drawing, when he was just a little older than the youngest son is now.

I hope you enjoyed this end-of-year story. I expect to return tomorrow with my traditional summary of the year in games. Enjoy the last day of 2019!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ideas for UE4 video tutorials to teach Computer Science concepts

I'm pleased to announce here that I have received an Epic MegaGrant to create video tutorials designed to teach Computer Science concepts through Unreal Engine 4. For those who don't follow me on YouTube, I have a Game Programming playlist with twenty public videos that I have created for my classes. Several are introductory or cover specific tips about version control, but some of my favorite ones cover more technical Computer Science concepts, such as decoupling modules through interfaces and the Observer design pattern. My proposal to Epic Games was to build upon this style of video, teaching real and interesting Computer Science ideas through their UE4 technology. I am glad that they agreed with me that this was a worthwhile pursuit.

The grant provides me with some extra time in the Spring 2020 semester to devote to making video tutorials. I have the freedom to choose the number, duration, and content of the videos, so I'm starting the project by reviewing my notes from teaching Game Programming using UE4 last semester. There were a few topics that came up during consulting meeting with students that point me toward specific videos, many of which are reinforcing ideas from earlier classes in the context of game development. Also, since writing my reflective blog post, I have been able to read the student teaching evaluations from last semester. Some of the comments there reinforced one of my observations from last semester, which is that students don't see that they can deploy the techniques they have already learned about object-oriented programming to UE4, both in Blueprint and in C++. That is, students who already understand topics from earlier courses did not recognize the affordances to use them to create more interesting or robust game software.

Before the new year and the new semester's classes kick off, then, here is a list of some of the videos that I'm considering developing in the Spring:

  • Type coercion through casting: What it is, why it is necessary in statically-typed languages, and how it manifests in Blueprint.
  • Refactoring Blueprint spaghetti by introducing new abstractions.
  • Comparing two techniques of implementing state machines: using enumerated types vs. the State design pattern.
  • Places where Blueprint expressiveness exceeds text's capabilities, such as the Select node.
Just after I posted by last video on the playlist, which is about getting started with C++ development, I learned about subsystems through an Inside Unreal livestream. I would like to explore the implications of this feature for software architecture. I want to see how much of what I love about entity system architectures I might be able to bring into UE4 using this technology.

What do you think, dear reader? If you have any suggestions for Computer Science concepts that can be explored in UE4 through video tutorials, leave a note in the comments. Thanks for reading!

[Update: Over on the UE4 Developers Facebook Group, there was a suggestion for a discussion of Big-Oh analysis and how it manifests in game programming, as related to performance. This is a great idea for a topic. I am adding it here so that I won't forget it when I come back and start scheduling production.]

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Family Painting Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated

Last year, I bought Charterstone as a family game for Christmas. Playing through the campaign with my wife and two oldest sons may have been my favorite board gaming experience. We also love Clank!, and so I have been excited for Clank! Legacy since I first heard about it. Once the positive reviews started coming in, I ordered a copy while I could and sat on it for this year's Christmas game.

We are all excited to get started, so last night, we did a "one night paint job" on the four hero miniatures. My sons have always used cheap craft paints for their miniatures, but for Christmas, I got them the Vallejo Model Color Basic Set. They enjoyed working with the new paints, although I think they will appreciate them even more as we move into more relaxed painting sessions. Both commented on how quickly the paints dried compared to the craft paints. Indeed, when I've painted with them using craft paints, the gloopiness and slow dry times are two things I found most frustrating, compared to doing quick, thinned layers with VMC.

My intention was that we would draft figures in age order, but before I could suggest that, the two boys had already picked theirs. #1 Son (12) wanted to be the "child in the dungeon" figure. This riffs off of his regular figure when we play Thunderstone Quest, since he almost always plays the one that looks like it's just a kid thrown into the battle. #2 Son (9) chose the elf, I think because he likes elves, although he was not specific in his choices. This left the tough lady fighter and the shouting dwarf, so I took the dwarf and let my wife take the other.

I used the airbrush to zenithal prime the figures, doing just a little bit of cleaning up of mold lines. Each of us will be playing our traditional board game colors, and we worked those colors into the models. Here's mine, blue:

Blue was a challenging color to put on a dwarf, which I tend to think of in muted and earthy tones. The only thing I could see to make blue at first was the tabard. As I worked with it, I realized I could do some blue trim on the helmet as well. I finished the model by using the same blue on the base, which I think ties it together.

Although we had a verbal agreement for one-session painting, "No shading, no highlighting", I couldn't help myself from doing just a little. I used a darker brown to pin wash the backpack, silver drybrushing to highlight the chainmail, two drybrush highlights on the beard, just a little brown to get more definition on the muscles, and P3 Armor Wash on the hammer. Otherwise, I used thinned paints to let the zenithal priming do a lot of the work.

This is my wife's warrior. She plays yellow, and so it made sense for the big, sweeping cape to take that color. She pointed out that it made the character look more like a superhero than a fighter, but between the cartoonish sculpt and the strange pose, I think it fits.

Although the plan was to use the boys' new Vallejo paints, I also brought down a few secret weapons from my painting arsenal, including the aforementioned P3 Armor Wash. I had really brought it down for this figure, since I figured my wife could do a quick silver paint on the plate mail and then use the armor wash for instant tabletop quality. I admit I was a bit dumbfounded when I saw her working on the orange! However, as she kept working on it, I could see it coming together. The very last step was adding the white trim around the armor plates, which I think really makes it pop. She spent three hours on this one, while I spent two on the dwarf, and the boys spent about 1-1/2 hours on theirs. I think she did a fine job, especially given the constraints.

Here's the dungeon kid—the red character. I recall my son starting with the Flat Flesh color in the basic set and then commenting that he wanted darker skin. I don't know what inspired him to do so, but I think it looks quite good: dark hair, dark skin, and bright blue eyes. He put some thoughtful discoloration into the crate as well, although it's subtle. I believe he called it "a moldy crate". Notice the nice job he did with the flagstone base as well. The whole thing has a subdued palate that really brings out the red and warm browns.

Finally, here's the green player's elf. I think it's pretty solid for a nearly-ten-year-old painter. The robe is a little splotchy, which is an unintended side effect of trying to work with the zenithal priming, like I wrote about in my JiME post: if you do one thin coat, it looks fine, but if you touch it up, you get splotches of higher saturation. He added a little thinned gold to the hair to give it some sparkle, but I'm afraid that is lost in the photo and was also greatly subdued by the varnish. He got a nice color for blonde hair, which is hard to do. He also really nailed the cobblestone base.

If you look carefully you can also see that he did some weathering on the robes, stippling on a little brown. I have written before about how I tend to lack the courage to dirty up a figure I spend so long to paint, but my son and I do watch several painters on YouTube who regularly incorporate weathering as a finishing touch. It's neat to see how he was inspired by this.

After the boys were done, and while my wife was finishing up her warrior, I retreated to my study to work on the dragon miniature. Here's it is:
I laid down the base colors by wet-blending three colors: a mix of VMC Deep Sky Blue and Grey, a mix of VMC Dark Blue and Black, and a mix of Black with the first mix. These were heavily mixed with Vallejo Glaze Medium to give me lots of open time for wet-blending. I let that set overnight. This morning, I mixed up a wash of roughly 3:1:4 blue, green, and black inks. I used this to pin wash the edges and accent all the scratches, using a second brush to feather out the wash in many places. The last step was just to paint the eyes with a mix of white and a touch of green, followed by a glaze of green ink to get just a little more green. All told, this was also just about two hours of painting; unlike the heroes, though, I think if I had more time I would probably just do it like this anyway: as an iconic representation of the draconic villain, I think it's a good piece.

Here they are all together, ready for adventure! The plan is to get the game to the table later tonight. That gives me a few hours to come up with a clever name for my dwarf.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Back in the Saddle: Preparing to teach CS222 in Spring 2020

I taught CS222 for many semesters in a row, and then I was surprised to get a semester's reprieve in Spring 2018. Imagine my surprise when this reprieve extended through Fall 2019! Now, after several semesters away, I'm scheduled to teach CS222 again in Spring 2020. I want to share here some of the changes I've made and what I'm hoping to accomplish. I am excited to teach this class again: it is a formative experience for our majors at an inflection point in the curriculum, and I think it plays to many of my strengths.

There are a few relatively superficial changes in the course plan that I have put online. I added "The Big Idea" section to the main overview page. This was a direct response to doing a routine evaluation of a colleague's course plan. Our committee uses a form to drive the review, and one of the questions on the form asks whether the instructor has any statements about their goals for the course, separate from the catalog description and departmentally-approved learning outcomes. I realized that I frequently talk about such things but did not have them in writing. "The Big Idea" section describes how CS222 is positioned in the curriculum and what I hope students get from it.

Another addition to the course site is the Tips page. This section began as a short collection of writing tips meant, primarily, to help students understand what I mean by the word "essay." It is one of those words that has unfortunately been beaten senseless by the educational establishment. As I worked on this section, it grew to include an excerpt from the 1920 edition of The Elements of Style and some process advice adapted in part from Jordan Peterson's. I tacked on a few programming tips that I often share with students. I am still tempted to add more to it, including tips for how to take notes during meetings and from reading. I realize, however, that if students don't read the course plan, then I'm writing more for me than for them. I expect to keep adding to this page as the semester progresses, monitor whether students reference it in their speech and writing, and ask them about it a few weeks into the class.

I seriously considered dropping the whole Achievements system that I innovated in this course some ten years ago. I love the idea that students have agency in deciding what to pursue, but I don't like the idea that students who are already bad at time management can easily dig themselves into a hole. I decided to keep the system with a few tweaks, although it's hard for me to explain why. I am afraid it is inertia. The major change I made to the achievements system was to formalize the levels of validation into "stars": a student can turn in anything they self-validate for one star, or they can get a peer validation for two stars, or they can get me to validate it for three stars. The most efficient path, then, is to do something well, get a peer's and then my validation, and then get three stars in one submission. We shall see if students go this way, or if anyone purposefully hammers out sequential low-quality one-star submissions.

I want to spend more time working with students in class on refactoring exercises, making sure I help them both see the affordances for action and learn the techniques required to perform the refactoring. To this end, I have prepared a series of relatively simple example programs that we will work on in class. This means less of my show-and-tell and more students getting their hands dirty.  This should help impediments and confusion rise to the top, where ideally I can act on it. Right now, there are only about twenty students in the class, which is much more manageable than filling the room to its ~35-person capacity.

As I wrote about in a Fall semester reflection, I noticed that my students in upper division courses do not understand version control. Students in Game Programming talked about version control as if it were just for back-ups, and my HCI students admitted to being terrified of pull requests. I plan to do more careful scaffolding around git and version control this semester, with more structured exercises both in- and out of class. I have not designed these interventions yet.

I would like to keep the schedule where the first three weeks introduce the major topics, the next two are spent in a rigorous, well-defined project, and the last nine weeks are spent in three three-week iterations of an open-ended project. I am still not sure how to align this goal with the more structured activities I want to add except, perhaps, to make the two-week project much more tightly connected to in-class activities. That is, I can make it almost more like a lab than a project. For example, on a given day, I could introduce the idea of a merge conflict, and then we could actually make one in our projects. I have not set aside the time to plan this part of the course yet, following the design dictum that one should put off design decisions to the last responsible moment: if I can get to know the class a bit, then I can put together the two-week project as we need it, once I have a sense of how they are responding to the other material. If we need to cut a week or two from the major project, I am not opposed to that either: we can always cut it to three two-week iterations, for example.

Many years ago, I requested to only teach this course in 75-minute blocks. This means it would be offered Tuesdays and Thursdays instead of Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I have taught it in 50-minute blocks before, and I found that we would always get interrupted in the middle of a complex activities. Unfortunately, the administrative staff in charge of scheduling forgot about this request and gave me the MWF schedule. It will be convenient in some ways, since my other class is MWF mornings and this will be MWF afternoons, but I remain concerned about the level of depth we will be able to get into in any given class meeting. I hope that my targeted exercises and careful planning will give us tight learning loops rather than interrupted longer loops.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to check out the course plan and let me know if you have any thoughts, feedback, or suggestions.