CS 112 Introduction to Computer Science is the engineering equivalent of freshman composition. At Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, almost all engineering students, regardless of their majors, must pass this course. It’s a challenging one, especially if it is their first encounter with writing code.
To address the divergent learning styles of college freshmen and meet the growing need for computer science instructors, Mason faculty members have used a $900,000 grant from tech giant Google to develop an innovative method of self-paced learning and guided instruction.
The Self-Paced Learning Increases Retention and Capacity (SPARC) method allows students to collaborate on practice assignments and, when they’re ready, present themselves for individual assessments. Advanced and fast-learning students may speed through the courses, while others can proceed at a slower pace.
“Our concept goes beyond increasing capacity and includes increasing retention and enrollment by women and underrepresented groups,” says Professor Jeff Offutt, the grant’s principal investigator.
SPARC uses a flipped classroom, which replaces traditional lectures with guided practice. Computer science professor Kinga Dobolyi says she loves teaching, not lecturing, so the flipped classroom is a perfect fit for her.
“The most exciting and maybe the most depressing thing I’ve discovered is that my students learn better when I don’t lecture,” says Dobolyi. “If I had a big ego, I might be offended.”
Dobolyi spends classroom time helping students work through specific challenges.
“I enjoy discovering where they are stuck and helping them get unstuck,” she says. “I think the best way to learn to write code is to actually write code.”
A key ingredient to the success of SPARC is its use of undergraduate teaching assistants, like bioengineering major Zach Baker, who also completed CS 112.
“I love being able to teach topics in simple ways,” says Baker. “It’s encouraging to see students discover new concepts when I explain them. It reinforces my own understanding, making me a better teacher. I also appreciate that my public speaking has improved dramatically.”
As the grant finishes its second year, the team is beginning to see results. In the next year, it plans to extend SPARC into five sections and use more teaching assistants. Two of these sections will be for CS 211, another basic computer science course with high enrollments.