Monday, December 17, 2012

Students' pride in their work: A CSEdWeek 2012 Post

Two weeks ago, I received an invitation from an undergraduate to come to the presentation of his independent study project. Turns out it was part of a series of presentations connected to a colleague's graph theory courses. Some of the presentations were connected with educational mobile applications, which piqued my curiosity enough that I decided to attend. I was one of three or four guests in the classroom, and the students demonstrated some decent technical prototypes. I provided a little bit of feedback from a HCI and design perspectives.

The experience made me think about the good work that my students are doing. The following Friday, I related the story to my CS222 class, who were a day away from the deadline on their six-week team projects. The teams and projects are self-selected, and this semester, I had three teams, each of which created a video game. I told the students, honestly, that their work was more interesting, and I asked whether they would like me to invite the rest of the department to come to their final project presentations. They responded immediately and excitedly that we should, and so I posted the announcement on the department's Facebook page.

Last Monday were the final presentations, and we brought in about eight outsiders—not bad for a class of twelve students! My recollection is that there were three faculty/staff there and around five undergraduates, all of whom had taken CS222 in the past. This is significant since these student-attendees came in with realistic expectations, having gone through the six-week project in a similar format themselves.

The three presentations went well. I had given them a presentation evaluation rubric ahead of time, and this rubric emphasized three categories: the executable release itself, achievement of milestone #2 objectives, and software architecture. Each of the groups covered these categories quite clearly in their allotted fifteen minutes. Note that game design was explicitly not part of the course: I made it clear to the students at the outset that they were welcome to create games in their six-week project, but that I would only formally evaluate them as software artifacts and not for their game design qualities, since that was outside the syllabus. Still, most of the questions from the audience were related to game design, and the teams provided responses that showed a good general understanding of game design; this is good for me, since hopefully I can recruit these students into my game design and game programming courses in the future!

It is well known that many people fear public speaking, and my students are not exceptional in this regard. I think that in most cases, these students would not volunteer to speak in front of a room of students, faculty, and staff; yet, when presented with the opportunity, they jumped at it. This speaks to the power of providing students with motivating contexts for their work. By giving students the freedom to choose a project that they wanted to complete, not only did I get them to commit to the requisite technical and collaborative tasks—they also gained the important social experience of public presentation.

I know I'm two days late in my CSEdWeek pledge to write a related blog post, but I hope that this post helps point in a fruitful direction. I've been using student-directed projects in my teaching for quite a few years with success, but I don't always make the opportunity for public presentation. Seeing how my students learned from this experience, I am going to try harder in future CS222 offerings to open up the final presentations. By putting it here on my blog, you can hold me to it next semester.

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