Adventures in interdisciplinary teaching

Several years ago, a good friend and colleague, who’s in the Psychology department, and I were talking about our mutual interest in human-computer interaction (HCI). Neither of us works in that field, but both of us wanted to explore the field beyond just a surface interest. We should team-teach a class in HCI, we joked. That would be our excuse to finally learn a bit more about it!

Fast forward to Fall Term 2011, and, well, we essentially got our wish!

After about four years of brainstorming, planning, talking to various deans and experts, cajoling our departments, tweaking and retweaking (and retweaking, and throwing out and starting over) ideas and course models and syllabi, my Psychology colleague and I are teaching a first-year dyad. For those not at Carleton, a dyad is a set of two courses, one of which is a freshman seminar (or Argument and Inquiry (A&I) seminar, as we call them around here). The two courses address a single topic or theme from the perspective of two different disciplines. The same students are enrolled on both courses. Our dyad links an A&I seminar on Psychology, Technology, and Design with a special topics section of Intro CS on human-centered computing, which counts for the CS major just as a regular Intro CS course would.

Typically, dyads are loosely linked, but from the start we decided that we wanted to tightly integrate our courses. As our vision for the course evolved, we decided that it was important for our students to work on a series of projects directly linking the two disciplines of psychology and computer science. In order to do this effectively, we decided that our classes should meet in consecutive periods, and that on Fridays we would team-teach “lab” sessions spanning both class periods, in which the students would work on these integrated projects. We also developed our syllabi together (literally—we often sat in the same room and worked on them simultaneously over the summer), and as much as possible try to cover similar and/or related topics at the same time in both courses.

We also determined, as our vision for the course evolved, that it was important for these projects to have a service learning component. To that end, we partnered with our IT department to identify appropriately-scoped projects for first year students in their first term at Carleton (no small feat!). The IT folks were very receptive and supportive, and we’ve worked extensively with two in particular to identify two web interface/functionality redesign projects—one involving a wiki, the other involving Moodle, our course management system. These IT people come in at the beginning of a project to orient our students to the site and its current functionality, and also will come in at the end of the project as our students present their redesigns. The first project, the wiki redesign, is finishing up, and our students will be presenting their proposed redesigns to the IT department on Monday.

We are four weeks into the course now, and the course is going even better than we envisioned. We worried before the term started about the “flow” between the two courses and about how the lab sessions would actually work in practice. Both of these have gone rather well—we’re particularly proud of how well the lab sessions have gone so far and how much work our students have been able to accomplish, given their still fairly limited programming skills and knowledge of HCI and software design. We have an awesome teaching assistant (“prefect”) for the CS course who’s a psychology major, and he’s been a tremendous resource for the students for both halves of the course. And, best of all, my colleague and I are still on speaking terms! 🙂

An unexpected bonus is getting to witness, first hand, another colleague’s teaching style. For all the talking and thinking we do at Carleton about teaching and learning, the truth is we know precious little about what our colleagues actually do in the classroom, how they interact with their students, how they approach the material, etc. Getting to see a colleague in action up close and personal has been a real gift.

I worried, because I’m “losing” a class meeting each week to the lab session, that the students would struggle to keep up with the faster pace of the CS half of the course, but they’ve been doing tremendously well in that area as well. The first real blip happened on Wednesday, when I introduced lists, but in my experience all of my students have initially struggled with the concept and reality of lists, so we’re right on track there.

The biggest challenge on the CS side has been language. Because we wanted the CS course to count as an Intro CS course, and thus the department expects students coming out of the course to know Python, I am having the students use Python to create web site mockups and mimic web site functionality, where another language like PHP or Javascript might be more appropriate. The language choice limits what we can do—for instance, the students can’t change any of the actual code, or create scripts for the sites—and has somewhat shaped what we’re asking the students to do in the projects, but so far we’ve been able to make it work, even with Python’s limited graphics capabilities.

As we move into the second half of the term, it will be interesting to see how the two courses evolve, together and separately. So far, we haven’t faced too many unforeseen challenges. Will more challenges pop up as we move through the course? Will the second project be as successful as the first? Have we over- or underestimated our students’ capabilities? Stay tuned!