In the 630-level Computer Science class (CSC630), groups of students created their own website which would teach their fall term topic, data structures and algorithms, to potential viewers. Alongside the website, students wrote blog posts to solidify their understanding. Their goal was to design a program that incorporated both the actual content of the course and other learning objectives.
The inspiration for the term long project came from the concerns of Nick Zufelt, the instructor of the course. Zueflt worried about the lack of interest in data structures and algorithms, thus instead prioritized student engagement and collaboration.
“On day one, I said, ‘Welcome to CS630. Our topic this term is data structures and algorithms, quite possibly the most boring computer science topic there is. So how are we going to make this interesting?’ The idea I came up with was to build the website, so they are thinking about how to communicate, and ultimately what they’re doing is becoming the teacher. You’ve probably heard people say that one of the best ways to make sure you learn something is to teach it. This is a form of teaching––for them to work together to produce these teaching materials,” said Zufelt.
Working across sections, between the two periods, 28 students were divided into four groups: Communication, Design, Content Creator, and Platform Development. Marc Vidal ’23 described each role and how they contribute to the building of the website.
“Communication works with Dr. Zufelt and all the groups, making sure everyone is up to speed about whether people need [help]. Then Design helped pick the design for the website, they picked the style guide. Content Creation, which [my group has] been doing the whole time, is to produce the content that’s featured on the website and to make sure that we’re accurately displaying or encapsulating what data structures are really about. Platform Development has been in charge of putting [everything] on the website and developing the frame behind the website. The four groups have been working together the past eight or so weeks, and now we’ve transitioned to editing and uploading [the] content,” said Vidal.
Venkat Sundaram ’23 hoped that the website would provide a simpler and more accessible introduction to the sometimes intimidating topic of computer science. Through teaching data structures and algorithms on his website, he hoped to create a resource for whoever wants to learn the subject.
“In our computer science seminar class with Dr. Zufelt, we wanted to learn data structures and algorithms, but simultaneously put together a resource for everyone else, an open-source educational resource for everyone else to also go to learn data structures and algorithms, and to have this be the one-stop-shop that is accessible and also not overwhelming and intimidating for people to see – a six hundred page book, for instance,” said Sundaram.
Despite the numerous challenges, Amanda Chiang ’24 was satisfied with the method of teaching data structures and algorithms. Chiang felt that the skills she used during the project, such as teamwork, prepared her to work in environments beyond schooling.
“I think the experimental format of the course does a really great job preparing you for real life because it’s a project, not like assignments, per se. A lot of it is self-paced but you need to be held accountable and you have to collaborate with other people, some of [which] you’ll see in person and some of [which] you won’t, so I think I’ve learned a lot in that sense,” said Chiang.
Due to the collaborative nature of the project, Zufelt worried about consistent and equal efforts from students in all groups. However, as the end of fall term nears, he has been satisfied with the efforts of the students.
“The overwhelming feeling that I have leaving this experience is a combination of a sense of relief and being proud of my students. It is absolutely possible that given this large group project, you could have individual students who decide not to pitch in 100 percent, especially since I have lots of seniors who are working on their college applications. It is perfectly reasonable for students to think ‘You know what, screw this big project, I’ve got my applications to deal with. This project is going to be fine with 27 people instead of 28 people.’ I’ve been incredibly impressed to say that [none] of my students are doing that. They are all very excited and working hard on this website, and that is a very pleasant surprise,” said Zufelt.