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2013 October 5

Balancing fun and fundamentals

In Computing is a Liberal Art » Automatons and Entertainers, Keith O’Hara writes

One oft-cited axiom in the MOOC debate is that Math and CS are easier to MOOC-itize than other fields. This is one fact that crosses the intellectual aisle. MOOC-leaning scientists and anti-MOOC humanists both take for granted that the teaching of math and programming should be the first to be automated. As you might have guessed, I whole-heartedly disagree. If you can’t automate the teaching of writing you can’t automate the teaching of math. You can automate multiplication drills, but you can also automate spelling drills. Humanists don’t consider spelling writing, Mathematicians don’t consider multiplying math. And for the record, computer scientists don’t consider programming language syntax computer science. Spelling is necessary to write. Multiplication is necessary to do math. Writing grammatically correct programs is necessary to study algorithms. But those aren’t the interesting parts of those disciplines, for exactly that reason, they can be automated. Academics are concerned with new knowledge, and that necessarily lives on the boundary of what is known and what is unknown. And if we can automate something, we know it very well.

I agree with him whole-heartedly.  The Java syntax courses that pass for first programming classes are a lot like spelling, grammar, or arithmetic drills.  They are essential skills, but boring as hell. Details matter, but details are not the whole picture.

One approach that gets used a lot in K–12 education is to drop the drills and concentrate on the “fun” parts.  This has dominated English teaching at the elementary and secondary school levels for a while now, so that many students entering college cannot spell and have only the vaguest notions of what a grammatical sentence is.  They’ve also only written self-reflections and literary analysis—styles of writing that have little existence outside English classrooms. Some math curricula have gone the same way, and students are entering college unable to multiply or add fractions and with only vague ideas about algebra, trigonometry, or complex numbers.  I can’t support a system in which fundamental concepts are ignored in this way.

Another approach is not to allow kids to do the fun stuff until they have mastered the fundamentals (the finish-your-spinach-or-no-dessert approach).  Unfortunately, the result is that many students never get to the fun stuff, and end up believing that huge swaths of knowledge are inaccessible and uninteresting.  Note: this approach dominates many engineering schools, which do a bottom-up approach teaching years of math, physics, and “fundamentals” before getting to engineering design, which is the heart of the field—the result is often a very high attrition rate and “engineers” produced who can’t actually do any engineering.

I think that a balanced approach, that mixes fun stuff in from the beginning but continues to teach the boring details, is essential to effective teaching in any field.

I am trying to create such courses for the bioengineering majors at UCSC: the applied circuits course, for example, and a new freshman design seminar. The bioengineering major at UCSC probably has the least engineering design of any of the majors in the School of Engineering (except for Technology and Information Management, which I don’t think belongs in the School of Engineering).  I want to fix that flaw in the curriculum, but it is hard to overcome the “you have to know all this before you can do anything” attitude of both students and faculty.  Fitting in all the prerequisite chains for math, physics, chemistry, biology, programming, and statistics makes it very difficult to schedule courses for freshman—students need to get prereqs done early enough that they can finish in 4 years.

I think that the computer engineering department at UCSC does a good job of mixing in engineering design down to at least the 2nd year courses (I’ve not looked at their freshman courses lately—they may be doing well there also).  I’m less impressed with what computer science has done, though the large sizes of their courses make good teaching and design content harder to incorporate.  Their game-design major does get into design much sooner than the standard CS course sequence, I believe. I’m decidedly unimpressed with EE, where there is no design content at all until the 3rd or 4th year, even where it could have been easily incorporated.

Note that engineering design is damn hard to MOOCify.  The essence of design is that the answers are not known in advance—there are many ways to achieve desired design goals.  There are also many different tradeoffs to make in setting the design goals.  Students not only have to come up with designs, but have to build and test them—the real world is very important in engineering, and simulation is rarely an adequate substitute. (Note, I’m not saying that engineering students should not use simulations. Learning how to use simulators properly and what their strengths and limitations are is an important part of engineering education—but simulation-only education is not sufficient.)

One problem I am facing in trying to improve the bioengineering curriculum is that most of our bioengineering students are in the biomolecular engineering track.  Molecular engineering is decidedly slower and needs more science background than most other fields of engineering (which is why it is mainly a graduate field elsewhere). It is particularly hard to provide freshman with design experience in molecular engineering.

UCSC has one honors course that attempts to provide this experience to freshmen, but the capacity in the course is only about 20 (shortage of wet-lab space and teaching resources), and probably only 3 or 4 bioengineering students qualify for the honors course—what do we do with the other 50–100 bioengineering freshmen?

The freshman design course I’ll be creating this winter will be able to handle maybe half of them, but it will be focusing on designing low-cost do-it-yourself instrumentation, not molecular engineering.  (I’m hoping that we can entice more students into the bioelectronics and rehabilitation tracks, and reduce the load on the biomolecular track.) The course is just 2 units, not 5, so that students can add it to a nominally full schedule, without delaying any of their required courses. That was all I thought I could get students to take with the current curriculum.

I’d like to have a required 5-unit course with substantial engineering design in the freshman year, and not just a 2-unit optional course, but I don’t currently see how to fit that in even with a revised curriculum—it would require reducing the chemistry requirements for the degree substantially, and the Chem department is unlikely to create a faster route to biochem.


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  1. In math, there are very few “boring details”. Even the multiplication tables can be learned in engaging ways. See Maria Droujkova’s work for examples. In English, a person who wants to communicate well will work on their spelling. (My son, who is ‘unschooling’ – and I would do some things differently if I had another chance – works hard on learning to spell because he wants his texts (!) to be spelled right. You can bet I’ll never tell him that most people don’t give a hoot whether their texts are spelled right. Unfortunately, he doesn’t work at math…)

    I wonder if Computer Science is stuck with more ‘boring details’ in its syntax and grammar requirements.

    Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 October 5 @ 10:19 | Reply

    • I’m sorry, Sue, but memorizing multiplication tables is inherently boring. There are ways to make boring tasks more fun, and they are certainly worth using, but memorization to automaticity not inherently engaging. Lots of other stuff in math (order of operations, for example) is not very exciting, but can be learned in very little time.

      Programming has about the same amount of grammar and punctuation to learn as math, but is generally taught in a more compressed time (10 weeks, instead of 10 years), so seems like a lot more.

      English has a lot more, and more complicated, rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation—many adults have only a very sketchy knowledge of them even after 16 years of schooling.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 October 5 @ 15:20 | Reply

  2. May I ask an off-topic question? I am not blog-savvy, so if I am violating etiquette or Standard Operating Procedure, please forgive me. I came upon this blog while searching google for information about the Common Application for home schoolers. I very much appreciated the info you shared and succeeded in getting myself invited as a counselor. Nevertheless, I do not know how I should answer some of the questions; viz., class size, class rank (on the student form), and questions that ask me to compare the student to other students in his class (on the counselor form). Any help will be much appreciated.

    Comment by Anne — 2013 October 6 @ 14:13 | Reply

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