Monday, September 13, 2010

APCS Principles Pilot Course: Designing Meaningful Labs for Humungous Classes

In the ongoing conversation about the APCS Principles course pilot project, today I am thinking about labs. I have been creating away... Lab creation, when a goal is to encourage creativity and exploration while making sure that design and coding content is covered  appropriately, in a given time frame, and in a way that can be assessed  (all of those 750 students....). Labs last two hours and pretty much run 5 days a week, all day. There will be 14 lab sections, with a 40-46 : 4 student - assistant ratio. The "assistants" are 1 graduate Teaching Assistant and 3 undergraduate tutors per lab. Students must attend the lab that they are registered for (no floating) which will help with keeping track of student progress and also with students getting to know their assistants. In a large class, that relationship can prove invaluable and needs to be encouraged. I envision a logistical nightmare if students were able to attend any lab on any given day or week. (Migraine anyone?)

With these kinds of numbers, every little detail has to be taken into consideration when writing the lab. Lab assignments are being designed with the intent that they be completed during the two hours. However, in discussing learning style issues, we are debating the pros and cons of posting the lab assignments in advance - what subtle messages would that send and is that productive or not? Is it fair?.....Does it make life easier or more stressful for the student?.....

Some students will  more readily "run with the ball" than others - a learning style issue rather than an ability issue. So the labs are being designed with two options of equal difficulty. One option will list the program code minimum requirements and let them loose, with a few reminders and suggestions about how to stay on task and not get lost in the technical weeds. The second option will provide a backdrop for the students to work within, and a scenario to use (for example: help a person to escape from a Southern California wildfire). The program code requirements are the same as with Option 1. We are taking great care to make each option be equally difficult/easy. And we want it to be FUN. (another scenario involves having fish swim around neutralizing ocean pollution).

After the very early labs that are fairly structured, the labs tasks will open up and encourage more and more freedom and creativity. The idea here is to support the general Alice philosophical approach of encouraging experimentation and "play" while learning. That makes creating them  both a challenge and fun. If it takes me 4 hours to complete my own lab idea, well then...hmmm. Too difficult. If I find Option 1 easier than Option 2, is that an accurate perception? hmmmmmm How many hints are appropriate and where to place them? hmmmmmmmmmmm.

There will also be an extra credit option for any student who whizzes through the primary part of the lab and has time to spare. The extra credit will put the pedal to the metal so to speak: add in something unusual, new, thought provoking. These exercises will not necessarily be harder in content; sometimes they may be harder in terms of design, or some other factor that we are trying to emphasize.

It will be interesting to see how students react to these two options. We intend to keep track of which labs students choose, if there is any pattern, if our intent for the level of challenge and "fun factor" plays out as intended.

This afternoon I was tasked with taking some time out to think again and more about assessing these labs. So now, I'm off going hmmmmmmmmmm about that. Stay tuned.

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