Thursday, February 24, 2011

Making work count

Sigh. I just realized it's been more than a month since my last post...

I was having a conversation this afternoon about effective educational methods with a bright young colleague who is very dedicated to teaching (it is sad how rare this kind of conversation is at a University!) During the course of the conversation, I came across a little nugget of wisdom that I thought worth posting. He was telling me about a discussion he had with some one from Red Hat, on incorporating open-source projects into programming classes.

I think this is a great idea that generalizes nicely to other kinds of classes, at least in engineering. A wonderful way to provide students with a source of self-motivation for the work they do in the context of a class (home/in-class assignments/projects) is to make their work available and useful to others. This makes the work meaningful in itself, not merely something done to get the grade.

As mentioned above, if it's a software class, they could contribute to an open-source effort. If they do some experiments or projects that may be of interest to others (in academia, industry, or even hobbyists), they could be asked to post and showcase the results online. This will also motivate students to do a good job of documenting and communicating the work they do. They could also do assignments that are directly documentary in nature, e.g., write a tutorial, create or contribute entries for a wiki on a topic related to the course.

The assignment/project could also be a real-world problem that is of direct interest to some external party. Two years back, I got freshmen students to look into and propose energy-efficient alternatives to lighting for buildings on the USC campus based on real data on the current lighting fixtures that I obtained from USC Facilities and Management Services (FMS). Many of the students were excited about the project and came up with great ideas for upgrades, taking into account the lighting needs of the buildings, potential energy savings, and the material and labor cost involved in upgrades.  I then forwarded the student reports and recommendations back to FMS for consideration in their future plans for upgrading the lighting. The project was not just "make-work" but "real" in the sense that folks at FMS were actually interested in what the students came up with.