Community Engagement in the CS Classroom

This past semester, I taught a user interface course (basically, an intro to HCI class with an app development project). I tried something a bit different. Instead of letting students come up with their own projects, I asked them to select from a set of local community partners that needed apps developed for their non-profit organizations. I worked with our community engagement program to recruit organizations and also sent out a few feelers myself. Here is the final list of community partners and the mobile apps the students developed for them:

  • Communities United Against Police Brutality:  an internal app for managing their social media calendar and online presence; an external app as a guide for civil rights when dealing with the police.
  • Dakhota Language Society: a vocabulary quiz game app; a storytelling app for reading/listening to Dakhota folk tales in both Dakhota and English.
  • Early Childhood Family Education: an app to help the parents and educators easily message each other, potentially anonymously (i.e., like YikYak for parents).
  • Frogtown Green: an app for capturing and reporting illegal trash dumping in the neighborhood to the city.
  • Campus Wellness Program: several apps for tracking activity and program points. This project was not done with a community partner but rather with a university faculty member interested in this domain.
  • All Parks Alliance for Change: curated community F.A.Q. and community support forum app for people living in mobile home parks in the Twin Cities Area.
  • Hope Community Outreach: two apps for literacy outreach, one to provide curated learning resources to parents and another for vocabulary practice for kids; one app for the youth gardening program to help children plan and budget a vegetable garden.

At the end of the semester, I surveyed both community partners and students about their experiences. I’ll share the findings below…

Questionnaire responses from students and community partners regarding these kinds of partnerships for future projects.

Questionnaire responses from students and community partners regarding these kinds of partnerships for future projects.

Six of the organizations responded to the questionnaire and the responses were largely positive. All of them agreed or strongly agreed that this program should continue in the future, that they would recommend that other organizations participate, and that the students met or exceeded expectations on the project. However, there was some mixed feedback about how the expectations were communicated, with two of the groups not being sure about what to expect from the student teams. Additionally, there was some confusion about who should be a regular contact point for students, with some groups not roping every relevant person into the process (particularly common when the organization included both community and university partners).

Sixty students responded to the questionnaire as well. I was interested in understanding how community projects affected the students’ learning, with two competing theories that could be influencing this. On one hand, the learning theory of constructionism suggests that students work best when working on personally meaningful projects. Indeed, 25% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would have preferred to choose their own project. On the other hand, the theory of thick authenticity suggests that students learn well when they view the work they’re doing as authentic and in line with “real world” work. 83% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that working with community partners made them see the project as realistic and authentic; additionally 73% of the students felt that the work was contributing to a bigger cause. However, only 54% agreed or strongly agreed that working on a community project helped them learn. Overall, the class was split: 62% agreed or strongly agreed that future classes should do this, 30% were neutral, and 38% disagreed.

Why did the students who were negative about the idea respond this way? Looking through the free response comments, the major con of working with community partners mentioned by the teams was that scheduling was a pain and that the partners were not technical enough to help guide the project. I see this as a pro, not a con of working with community partners! If there is anything this class is supposed to teach the students it is that working with real users is tough and requires a different set of skills than just programming! The second issue mentioned by the students was that there was a great deal of inconsistency between the partners and teams in terms of partner commitment and availability. This is actually a valid and real problem! I tried to grade around it, but this is certainly something that I would like to level if I am to try this again in future iterations of this course.

Will I do this again? I will likely try this again in some shape or form in the future, but I think I will need to make more of an effort to create a better experience for the students. I think it would be reasonable to set more specific expectations for the organizations that want to participate in the program, particularly in terms of scheduling and availability to meet and work with the students.

Have you ever tried something similar in one of your classes? How did it go?

Sketching with Computer Science Students

Last semester, as part of my Design Methods class (more here, if you want any of the materials), I attempted to teach Computer Science students how to sketch. Each student had to practice sketching and submit at least one of their own sketches as part of the project milestone. While initially, this prospect caused some anxiety for the students, most were able to find a style and an approach to creating visual content that worked for them.

We relied heavily on Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook (Saul Greenberg, Sheelagh Carpendale, Nicolai Marquardt, and Bill Buxton), which does a great job explaining the benefits of sketching to the overall design process and providing some strategies for those who are less artistically inclined. Particularly, the books tutorials on storyboarding, simplified figures (e.g., stick figures), and photo tracing were used by the students with great results.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

We added another skill to our sketching repertoire that was not covered in the workbook, namely constructing two-point perspectives. I chose to add this to the curriculum because I’ve found the rule-based approach of this method is generally well-received by engineers and is particularly useful in sketching and considering physical computing prototypes.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

I found that the process of sketching out ideas helped students think divergently. For the last milestone, the students were asked to develop two prototypes that they found to be most promising, with a special focus on diversity of modalities and ideas in the final prototypes they chose to pursue. I was very impressed with the results!


Some of the physical prototypes students developed from their sketches for the final class milestone.

In final student evaluations of course content, sketching was the component that worried me most. This is so different from a standard Computer Science skill or activity that I had to wonder whether students would find it valuable in retrospect. Indeed, in their final ranking of the thirteen components and skills covered in the class, sketching came in at #4! It was one of the most valued components of the class, despite (or maybe because of?) any initial trepidation students expressed about their drawing skills. I’ll definitely continue including this unit in the course in the future!

(Note: Images are used with permission from each project group, asked and received after the submission of final grades.)

Peer Teaching Presentations in a Curriculum

I haven’t blogged last semester, as I’ve been devoting my energy to teaching my first class (which went great according to the student evals!). The class, titled “Design Methods for Computer Scientists,” was a project-based course covering inspiration methods (e.g., design probes), design process, sketching, and rapid prototyping (e.g., 3D printing, Arduinos). As always, I want to share my materials, so here is the syllabus and the project description. But in this blog post, I want to reflect on one specific component of the class, peer teaching.

The goal of this component was to help students practice independently learning new skills and teaching these skills to their peers. Each student was asked to prepare a 20-minute class session on a topic of their choice that may be useful to others in the class (see, peer teaching description and rubric). Most of the presentations focused on cool APIs, tools, and techniques for rapidly bringing design ideas to life. Topics covered included: Arduino eTextiles, littleBits, Intel IoT kits and Galileo, WebRTC, GreaseMonkey, Processing, PhoneGap, and many more interesting topics. The presentations were spread throughout the semester and graded both by me and by the other students in the class (40% of the grade coming from written peer critiques). In terms of the short-term goals, I was excited to see that the student presentations generally increased in quality as the semester went on, with them getting presentation tips from each others. Additionally, it was great to see that students incorporated techniques covered in peer teaching presentations into their projects, so they definitely learned through the process. The long-term goal of this component is to keep the class material from getting stale by continually updating the parts that are most likely to change quickly (e.g., tools and technology available for prototyping), but efficacy towards this long-term goal is still to be demonstrated.

At the end of the class, I asked student to rate the personal utility of each class component. Out of 13 class components, peer teaching came in right at about the middle of the pack as the 5th most useful. Through discussion with students, we considered how this can be improved and came up with some directions for the future. Next time I run the class, I’ll be asking for peer-teaching presentation to submitted as 20-minute tutorial videos and asking each student to watch 10 and critique videos that are most relevant to them. There are several advantages as I see to this approach:

  • The presentations were great, with the most helpful parts generally being the hands-on demos and walkthroughs. Even though presenters shared their slides, the demo portion of their presentations was ephemeral and students could not refer back to it.
  • Collecting peer teaching tutorials as video would help us build up a library of resources across years.
  • All the presentations can be due on the same day (making this more fair) and all of them can be available in time for the prototyping milestone. As is, about a quarter of the talks occurred after they could be usefully integrated into the students’ projects.
  • It would free up significant time in class, which would be best used for project workgroups. I underestimated the difficulty that student groups have in meeting up outside of class, adding in-class time that the all have to be there would really help. Next time I teach, I’d like to keep Mondays as project days.
  • Students who do a great job can share this tutorial widely and add it to their portfolio as an example of their work.

Has anybody tried something like this in their classroom? I would love to hear how that went! Stay tuned for more reflections from teaching, including some examples of cool projects that came out of the classes.