Last fall, I started my education at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in computer science, and one of the first courses I took was CMPINF 0010: Big Ideas in Computing and Information. The course is a general education requirement in the School of Computing and Information and centers around some of the overarching themes in computer and information science, including computational thinking, communication, and design and affordances. Big Ideas is a 4-credit class, with 3 credits allocated to a lecture component and a 1-credit weekly skills lab.
When I took the course, I truly enjoyed attending the lectures. My professor, Dr. Adam Lee, was an incredible orator and always maintained my interest in the subject matter, even though I already had 10 years of coding experience by the time I entered college. Whenever we discussed material that seemed abstract, he would provide real-world examples as motivation for how we could apply the concepts to our own work. Sometimes, we would have a guest lecture from another important figure in computer/information science, which provided us with more insight into how the ideas were being used to solve real-world problems.
The lab component started out strong as well. We were working in a new programming environment that I didn’t have much experience in, and my undergraduate teaching assistant for the class was engaging. However, as the weeks went on, students began to realize that the concepts from the lecture and the lab lessons were not related, and they engaged less with the material. Halfway through the semester, lab attendance had noticeably dropped.
During my second semester at Pitt, I signed up to be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the course because I had found the concepts so interesting. This meant answering emails with questions about the course, holding office hours, and, most enthralling to me, teaching one of the lab sections. After a few weeks of teaching, I realized that, like when I took the course, attendance for the skills labs had decreased. After discussing attendance with a few students and friends who had taken the course, I realized that the lack of a connection between the lecture concepts and the lab assignments played a large part in why students were losing interest.
That brings me to my project for the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship. My name is Griffin Hurt, and I am studying computer science with a secondary focus in mathematics. With Dr. Adam Lee as my faculty mentor, I plan to update the lab lessons for Big Ideas to include material from the lectures, hopefully bridging the gap between the two parts of the course. Originally, the lab was designed to provide students with a working knowledge of an array of technical skills that will serve them as they advance through any computationally oriented degree program, as opposed to specifically reinforcing lecture. By connecting the two, we hope that students will learn to apply the themes covered in lecture, while still gaining the required technical skills. Lab lessons are presented as Jupyter notebooks, which are collections of combined code and text, so my updates will generally involve adding additional text elements and code examples referencing the previous week’s big ideas.
In addition, I plan to implement an automatic grader for the lab assignments as part of my fellowship. When students turn in labs, they are not offered any immediate feedback and must wait for teaching assistants to grade the assignments. Given that most students in the course are working with these technologies for the first time, I believe that providing students with a formative assessment of their code as they work can help improve their learning.
I am grateful that the Frederick Honors College has provided me with this incredible opportunity and look forward to seeing the results of my project. After I finish my undergraduate degree, I hope to attend graduate school and become a professor someday. I believe the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship will provide me with important skills related to teaching, including curriculum design and understanding students’ mindsets. By enhancing the Big Ideas course and igniting a passion for learning in new students, I hope to contribute to a more enriching experience for those entering the School of Computing and Information, shaping the future of computer and information science education.