The First Day of CSE 91

April 8, 2012

Last Wednesday was the first class meeting of CSE 91, “Perspectives in Computer Science”, which I blogged about in my previous post. I have a confession: this was the first time I had taught students in a lower-division class, not to mention designed for first-year students. I was filled with trepidation. Having taught mostly CSE 131 (Compilers) and CSE 118 (Ubiquitous Computing) in the past, I had primarily seen students close to graduation. These students are nearly complete computer scientists. They are easy to talk to at a high level, if a bit jaded about whether there is anything left for them to learn from a computer science professor.

But, the first meeting was a thrill! The students were curious, as well as responsive to the many “raise your hands if” polls that I ran to learn the  composition and interests of the class. Moreover, many raised their hands to ask questions about the content of the course. This will be really helpful in customizing the content of the course in the coming weeks. For example, one student asked about preparing for graduate school. Another asked about tutoring in our CSE classes. We’ll be sure to cover both, starting this coming Wednesday, when I have a visiting panel discuss careers in computer science.

One surprise in the polling was that a large minority of the class had never met with our our excellent advising staff, Pat Raczka and Viera Kair. They are veritable warehouses of knowledge, available several hours a day, five days a week. You can learn more at the CSE advising page. We’ll get a full dose of Pat and Viera 4th week, when a panel of seniors presents what they learned through extensive interviews with them. Pat and Viera will be invited to take questions. As a bonus, the seniors will also develop an advising FAQ for our undergrads based on the interviews, making many of Pat and Viera’s insights available 24-7.

This quarter I am co-teaching CSE 91 Perspectives in Computer Science with Beth Simon.  This course is intended to “orient” our computer science majors to the discipline, but it didn’t work out. It started as a “big ideas” course, with lots of guest speaker, including many of our faculty in graduate students.  The problem was that new majors will ill-prepared to understand — or appreciate — this material.  Rick Ord commented that the course was better for seniors.  Whoops.  So Beth suggested that we redesign the course around how to be successful in the major.  The result is a course that new students can relate to, and provides information they need.  Students learn about how to do well in courses, the value of (and how to land) internships, and how not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before them.  Scott Baden test-drove some of the material in this course last quarter, and it has gone well.

A unique part of the course is that most of the homework involves gathering information from the web, people, etc., and writing blog posts about what they learn.  The goal is several-fold.  One, we want to students to have a lightweight way of learning and thinking about the course’s subject matter.  Two, we want students to practice communicating.  Three, blog software is one of the more interesting software artifacts to emerge in recent years, and blog sites are rather configurable and programmable: we hope that students will gain an appreciation of this and actually take time to “hack” their blog sites.  Finally, we want to get students used to the idea that their actions can change the world.  The typical undergraduate is a remarkable absorber of knowledge, but it’s never too soon for undergraduates to confront the reality that they are learning computer science so that they can change the world.  It is only by coming to grips with this reality that they can have thriving careers.  By publishing posts in a public blog, they are speaking to their fellow and future students, and maybe making a difference.

As you might have realized by now, this blog post is my first step in eating my own dog food:  It’s not reasonable to ask students to blog unless I’m doing it myself.  I hope they will be eager to follow my example and then challenge me to think more deeply about this topic — and the value of writing about what you’re studying — as well.

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