TITLE: What Students Said AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 12, 2011 10:18 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Curly says, 'one thing' On the last day of my Intelligent Systems course, I asked my students three retrospective questions. Each question asked them to identify one thing... Question 3 is a topic for another day, when I will talk a bit about AI. Today I am thinking more about what students learned about writing software. As one of our curriculum's designated "project courses", Intelligent Systems has the goal of giving students an experience building a significant piece of software, as part of a team. What do the students themselves think they learned? A couple of answers to the first question were of more general software development interest:
I learned that some concepts are easy to understand conceptually but difficult to implement or actually use. I learned to be open-minded about several approaches to solving a problem. ... be prepared to accept that an approach might take a lot of time to understand and end up being [unsuitable].
There is nothing like trying to solve a real problem to teach you how hard some solutions are to implement. Neural networks were the most frequently mentioned concept that is easy to understand but hard to make work in practice. Many students come out their AI course thinking neural nets are magic; it turns out magic can be hard to serve up. I suspect this is true of many algorithms and techniques students learn over the course of their studies. I don't recall talking about agile software development much during this course, though no doubt it leaks out in how I typically talk about writing software. Still, I was surprised at the theme running through student responses to the second question. For example:
Design takes time. Multiple iterations, revise and test.
A couple of teams discovered spike solutions, sorta:
You may write a lot of worthless or bad code to help with the final solution. We produced a lot of bad code that was never used in the end product, but it helped us get to that point.
These weren't true spikes, because the teams didn't set out with the intention of using the code to learn. But most didn't realize that they could or should do this. Now that they know, they might behave differently in the future. Most important, they learned that it's okay to "code to learn". Many students came to appreciate collective code ownership and tools that support it:
When writing software in a group, it is important to make your code readable: descriptive [names] and comments that describe what is going on. I learned how to maintain a project with a repository so that each team member can keep his copy up-to-date. ... I also learned how to use testing suites.
Tests also showed up in one of my favorite student comments, about refactoring:
I learned that when refactoring even small code you need unit tests to make sure you are doing things correctly. Brute forcing only gets you into trouble and hours of debugging bad code.
Large, semester-long projects usually given students their first opportunity to experience refactoring. Living inside a code base for a while teaches them a lot about what software development is really like, especially code they themselves have written. Many are willing to accept that living with someone else's code can be difficult but believe that their own code will be fine. Turns out it's not. Most students then come to appreciate the value of refactoring techniques I need to help them learn refactoring tools better. Finally, this comment from the first student retrospective I read captures a theme I saw throughout:
It is best to start off simple and make something work, rather than trying to solve the entire problem at once and get lost in its complexity.
This is in many ways the heart of agile software development and the source for all the other practices we find so useful. Whatever practices my own students adopt in the coming years, I hope they are guided by this idea. ~~~~ Some of you will recognize the character in the image above as Curly, the philosopher-cowboy from City Slickers. One of the great passages of that 1991 film has Curly teaching protagonist Mitch about the secret of life, "One thing. Just one thing." I am not the first software person to use Curly as inspiration. Check out, for example, Curly's Law: Do One Thing. Atwood shows how "do one thing" is central to "several core principles of modern software development. -----