Friday, December 12, 2014

Digging up my first CS education research work

Once again, it is Computer Science Education Week. In previous years, I feel like my inbox and news feed were inundated with reminders and requests to take action. My participation has taken the form of blog posts the last few years. This year, no one requested it—and maybe they didn't last year either, since it seems I made no CSEdWeek post in 2013—but it turns out that I have a good and relevant story to tell anyway.

My first semester as an Assistant Professor was Fall 2005 at Ball State University. I had come to Ball State on the strength of my doctoral work in interactive program visualization, which was a line of inquiry I intended to continue pursuing. One of the reasons I had become interested in this work was because it had implications to Computer Science education, helping people to understand the semantics of program execution; however, my own doctoral work was more theoretical and engineering, not assessment of application. 

In that first semester, I was assigned to teach CS120, the department's introduction to Computer Science, which at the time was taught in C++. The textbook contained classic and uninteresting problems, and as I had done in graduate school, I spent some time crafting my own programming projects. The students' final project was to make a text-based adventure game set in Mounds State Park. This was inspired by John Estell's Nifty Assignment. I remember the project having been a great success in terms of students' engagement and learning outcomes.

I was reminded of this assignment yesterday, when I was gathering scrap paper to bring to my CS222 final exam. My exam followed a similar format to what I described two years ago, although I have stopped asking for mind maps. My scrap paper supply has been getting smaller, and so I grabbed the whole stack to bring downstairs. At the bottom of the stack were about thirty of these forms:

It's a survey I designed in Fall 2005 to gather some feedback from students about the final project. This represents the first effort I can remember of trying to conduct actual Computer Science Education research: to have real data and coherent theories about the relationship between what I was doing and what the students were learning. Looking at the form now, having been involved in Computer Science Education research for almost ten years, I was bit surprised to see that I think it's a decent instrument. At the time, I knew nothing of qualitative research methods or even quantitative research methods, and I had no formal understanding of constructivism or constructionism. Not too bad for a novice.

Today, in 2014, I feel much more comfortable with Computer Science Education Research as part of my identity as a scholar. I have written several articles in this area, and while my more technical work still has more citations, the metrics suggest that my work has made a real difference in the community—a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. This gives me great satisfaction, to know that I am helping students here in Muncie, and that through a network of like-minded scholars, there can be a ripple effect to other places and instutitions, similar to how John Estell's Nifty Assignment prompted me to make an interesting new assignment for my students.

It was fun to post this same picture on Facebook and hear back from students I had that semester. It was a memorable assignment for them as well!

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