Active learning to transform Washington University undergraduate computer science education

November 05, 2007

Kenneth J. Goldman, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science and engineering, is the recipient of a $562,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will enable his department to transform undergraduate teaching methodology.

Goldman and his fellow principal investigators are working to cultivate "active learning" in the classroom, with a significant increase in studio courses that involve team projects and interdisciplinary collaboration. In a culture marked by frequent critique, students will refine their design skills, as well as improve their ability to present and justify their designs and work in groups. Passive learning, typified by the traditional lecture, will be put on the backburner, though the flame will still burn low.

"At most universities, students spend the bulk of their in-class time passively listening to a lecture. They may ask a few questions, but nearly all of their active learning on problems and projects is done outside of class," said Goldman. "We want to change that. Much of the passive learning can be done effectively out of class. We want students to interact in the classroom more, instead of hearing a lecture. As we phase in courses during this transformation, we will be making video and audio from lectures available on the Web. We can then assign these, much like reading assignments, so that students can arrive in class ready to do something with that knowledge."

The planning for this transformation has been a significant ongoing effort, involving many faculty and students. NSF support for this transformation was formally announced and discussed with computer science and engineering students on Wednesday, October 10 at a meeting of the student chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery.

"Students seemed very enthusiastic," said Goldman. "One student commented that more hands-on time will be better, and that of what he learns in computer science, only 10% is from lecture anyway."

At the meeting, Goldman explained that undergraduate courses affected by this transformation will be divided into two groups: Foundations courses will concentrate on fundamental problem solving skills; studio courses will be marked by application of foundational knowledge to design and implementation in teams. In both types of courses, students will experience active learning in the classroom and frequent critique from the faculty and other students.

"We want to raise the interaction level to a significant degree," said Goldman. "I think this approach appeals to the engineering mentality. People are attracted to computer science and engineering because it is a creative discipline. Educational research shows that if students are creating during class, rather than just sitting there listening, motivation will be higher and the students will learn more."

Goldman noted that computer science and the School of Engineering have never been entirely passive, and that many design and capstone courses are hands-on, and students do have opportunities to develop presentation skills.

"But, we're taking that up several notches," he said. "We expect our students to become leaders in computer science and engineering, so they need to develop a strong technical foundation, strong communications and collaboration skills, the ability to carry out innovative designs, and an understanding and appreciation of other disciplines and cultures. The goal of this transformation is to help students accomplish this more efficiently by integrating a lot more design activities and collaboration into class time."

This fall, lectures from CSE 131, Computer Science I, CSE 241, Algorithms and Data Structures, and CSE 361, Introduction to Systems Software, will be "captured" and modularized into smaller chunks. As the active learning transformation is phased in over several years, passive content will be delivered through an online course management system (CMS). Students will be able to use some of that material to prepare for in-class learning activities that otherwise would have been done at home. The CMS will also help students track where they are in the curriculum and enable them to keep portfolios of their project work, useful in job searches and graduate school applications.

It will support planning by providing information about what prerequisites are required for each module in the curriculum, and will allow students from other areas who might want to participate in an interdisciplinary studio to find an efficient pathway through the curriculum to take such courses.

"Because course content will be separated into smaller modules, a student outside of computer science could work with a CSE faculty member to fashion an independent study that would get them up to speed on the particular things they need to know in order for them to participate in an interdisciplinary studio in a meaningful way," Goldman said.

In the spirit of being interdisciplinary, Goldman and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering are collaborating with Peter McKeith from the School of Architecture in studio-based instruction.

"Architecture has a long history of studio-based instruction," he said. "Peter will help faculty learn techniques for interacting with students more effectively in studio courses, and he will critique us along the way. In spite of the differences, it's striking how similar the design processes are in computer science and architecture. We expect that much of the teaching technique will transfer well."

Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education and an investigator on the grant, will provide professional development for faculty in the area of active learning. As courses are phased in, Sawyer will help faculty plan active learning sessions that make the most of class time. Lynn Stein, Ph.D., of Olin College of Engineering in Boston, will provide curriculum support based on her multidisciplinary teaching experience at her school. Other investigators on the grant, from the WUSTL Department of Computer Science and Engineering, are: Ron K. Cytron, Ph.D., professor; Roger D. Chamberlain, Ph.D., associate professor; Christopher D. Gill, Ph.D., assistant professor; and Cindy M. Grimm, Ph.D., assistant professor.

Washington University in St. Louis

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