Context matters

As a professor, one of the ways I measure the success of my teaching is the “news article frequency”:  the frequency with which my students send me links to news stories that relate to something we talked about in class.  Lately, my news article frequency has been quite high.

I can’t imagine teaching computer science without context:  without bringing in real-world examples that relate to what we’re learning.  There are so many good stories in computer science, so many neat applications, so many people and organizations doing interesting and novel things with technology!

My big experiment this term in my intro class involves centering the entire course around context and applications, rather than around concepts.  It’s been a real mind shift approaching computer science in this way, but I’m finding that, so far, my students are grasping the more complex concepts faster than they’ve done in previous, more traditionally-focused intro sections.  And of course, it gives me an excuse to play around with fun problems.  :)

Last week I had the students in the lab implementing different encryption algorithms.  Today, in class, I discussed properties of strong encryption mechanisms and demonstrated how easy it was to crack a password, using simple “brute-force” (i.e., try a bunch of passwords until you find the one that works) methods.  Along the way, I told stories about the Cold War and discussed a bit about human nature and how this impacts our ability to choose good passwords.  This clearly piqued the interest of the students, and we had an interesting in-class discussion.  But I knew the topic was a winner when I received an email from a student linking to an article about bad passwords, covering the same ideas we’d discussed in class!

Perhaps the biggest success indicator, though, is when students continue to send me links to related stories even after the class has ended.  Last term, my students in my upper-level elective sent me news links faster than I could keep up with them, and a subset of students continues to send me news links related to the course, well after the course has ended.  I still occasionally get a link to a news story from someone who took my computer security elective last spring, too.  I like that my students are continuing to think about the course concepts  after the course has ended, and that they are using their critical thinking skills to evaluate outside sources.  (One student who sent me a link even critiqued the technical content of the story for me!)

One of the ways in which I’d like to improve as a professor, post-tenure, is to improve my story-telling.  I’d like to come up with a wider repetoire of stories to intersperse into class meetings.  I’d like to make sure that the examples I’m using are compelling, interesting, and challenging.  I’d like, when all is said and done, to keep that news article frequency high.

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