TITLE: Workshop 5: Curriculum Development AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 07, 2008 8:59 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

[A transcript of the SECANT 2008 workshop: Table of Contents]

This session was labeled "birds-of-a-feather", likely a track for short talks that didn't fit very well elsewhere. The most common feather was curriculum, efforts to develop it and determine its effect. First up was Ruth Chabay, on looking in detail at students' computational thinking skills. She is involved in a pilot study that aims to answer the question, "Do students think differently about physics after programming?" This is the sort of outcomes assessment that people who develop curriculum rarely do. Even CS faculty -- despite the fact that we would never think of writing programs and not checking to see whether they ran correctly. This study is mostly question and method at this point, with only hints at answers. The research methodology is a talk-aloud protocol with videotaping of the participants' behavior. Chabay showed an illustrative video of a student reasoning through a very simple program, talking about the problem. I'd love to be able to observe students from some of my courses in this way. It would be hard to gather useful quantitative data, but the qualitative results would surely give some insight into what some students are thinking when they are going their own way. Next up was Rubin Landau, who developed a Computational Physics program at Oregon State. He started with a survey from the American Physical Society which reported what do physics grads do 5 years after they leave school. A large percentage are involved in developing software, but alumni said that the number one skill they use is "scientific problem solving". Even for those working in scientific positions, the principles of physics are far from the most important skill. Landau stressed that this does not mean that physics isn't important; it's just that students don't graduate to repeat what they learned as an undergrad. In Landau's opinion, much of physics education is driven by the needs of researchers and for graduate students. Undergraduate curriculum is often designed as a compromise between those forces and the demands of the university and its undergraduates. Landau described the Computational Physics curriculum they created at Oregon State with the needs of undergrad education as the driving force. I don't know enough physics to follow his description in real-time, but I noticed a few futures. Students should learn two "compiled languages"; it doesn't really matter which, though he still likes it if one is Fortran. The intro courses introduce many numerical analysis concepts involving computation (underflow, rounding). This course is now so well settled that they offer it on-line with candid video mini-lectures. Upper-division courses include content that students may well work with in industry but which have disappeared from other schools' curricula, such as fluid dynamics.. Landau is fun to listen to, because he has an arsenal of one-liners at the ready. He reported one of his favorite computational physics student comments:
Now I know what's "dynamic" in thermodynamics!
Bruce Sherwood reported a physics student comment of his own: "I don't like computers." Sherwood responded, "That's okay. You're a physicist. I don't like them either." But physics students and professors need to realize that saying they don't like computers is like saying, "I don't like voltmeters." If you can't work with a voltmeter or a computer, you are in the wrong business. That's just the way the world is. My favorite line of Landau's is one that applies as well to computer science as to physics:
We need a curriculum for doers, not monks.
The next two speakers were computer scientists. James Early described a project in which students are developing learner-centered content for their introductory computer science course. This project was motivated by last year's SECANT workshop. Most of the students in their intro course are not CS majors. The goal of the project is to excite these students about computation, so they'll take it back to their majors and put it to good use. I immediately thought, "I'd like to have CS majors get excited about computation and take it back to their major, too!" Too few CS students take full advantage of their programming skills to improve their own academic lives... Resource link to explore: the Solomon-Felder Index of Learning Styles, which has gained some market share in engineering world. Besides, it's on-line and free! Mark Urban-Lurain closed the session by describing the CPATH project at Michigan State, my old graduate school stomping grounds. This project is aimed at creating a process for redesigning engineering curriculum. But much of the interesting discussion revolved the fact that most engineering firms request that students have computational skills in... Excel! Several of the CS faculty in the room nodded their heads, because they have pointed this out to their colleagues and run into a stonewall. CS departments balk at such "tools". Now, Excel is not my tool of choice, but macros really are a form of programming. I've been following with interest some work in the Haskell community on programming in spreadsheets (see some of the papers here. We in CS have more powerful tools to use and teach, but we also need to meet users of computation where the live. And in many domains, that is the spreadsheet. I ended the workshop by chatting with Urban-Lurain, with whom I came into contact as a teaching assistant. His colleague on this CPATH project is my doctoral advisor. It is a small world. -----