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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