Friday, December 3, 2010

Socially Meaningful Student Projects

Yesterday I watched some of the student final projects for the APCS Principles pilot class. The students had been given the option of submitting their projects into a contest in which their classmates would vote on the best one. Participation in the contest was completely optional but quite a few students took the plunge. Ten projects were selected for viewing in class and being voted on. They were pretty darned cool if I say so.

This final class assignment (which all students had to do) asked them to create a digital project to communicate their views on some issue facing society; they were given a wide ranging list of topics to choose from and if they thought they had a better topic they could propose it. One topic, acknowledging the large number of psychology students in the class, was to design an interactive psychology experiment.

The contest proceeded in round robin pairings, with students using their by now well finger-smudged clickers to vote. They were able to see the results of each round live. To those who know Alice well it was clear that significant programming sophistication, such as complex looping and list structures, went into some of the projects . A few students figured out how to use concepts that the class did not introduce, such as variables and button input boxes.

One of my favorite projects involved a group of penguins who emerged from an igloo to play and pick up trash. They spun, circled, danced, flapped their little flippers (do penguins technically have wings?), sometimes in a chorus line and sometimes going off to express their individual selves. One happily slid around on its tummy over the ice. Along the way they picked up and tossed trash towards the trash can. Too cute. And there were clearly lists, parameters and other well designed code structures underneath the fun.

Another project was more serious, without being too heavy, which came through as instructor Beth Simon had the honor of "playing it". The tree she was trying to save from destruction did not make it. There were all these objects (zombies, flying anvils) attacking the healthy tree while little bunny rabbits hopped around it. The player had to shoot the nasty objects to save the tree. Unfortunately, the tree withered (i.e. the player missed too many fast moving objects) and the forces of environmental destruction won out ... this time.

One project replicated a famous real psychology experiment in which a group of seminary students on the way to a lecture about ethics and helping people mostly ignored a passerby in distress (it was a "plant" fortunately). The student brought the scenario up to date, using the setting of a student late for class who witnesses a disaster and has to decide if it is worth risking being late for class and possibly hurting their grade by calling for an ambulance. Beth acted as the psychology subject, and asked the class what to do. They ended up running the scenario with both decisions (help and not help).

There were so many more fascinating projects. One used creative graphics to teach quadratic equations, another challenged the user to decide if they should respond to provocation aggressively or attempt reconciliation, another had a kangaroo trying to hop over a tree as it answered questions about tuberculosis, a snowman trying to eat only healthy food, a plea to help out at this holiday time by donating toys to children in poverty, and a fun question and answer animation about sharks facts (ever seen a shark spin around on itself?) and finally a darkly amusing story about a basement hacker who goes phishing and lures in an unsuspecting victim to perform identify theft. This story won the overall class vote, although the stage by stage competition was at times quite close.

Very very few students were texting, or using Facebook in class. This was fun and informational for everyone and a great way to approach the end of the term.

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