Home > Uncategorized > It’s 15 minutes past the end of class, and nobody has noticed

It’s 15 minutes past the end of class, and nobody has noticed

“Aaron, I hope you’re going to be home soon. Z [our three-year-old] has started LabVIEW on your computer and says he wants to program the robot.” – my wife, on the phone, a few months ago

This past semester, I taught a section of ECE1882: Introduction to ECE Design, which revolves around labs and projects using Lego Mindstorms robotics. My class was split into six teams, each with three people. The “design challenge” occupies the last 2/3 of the class periods. (One of my students took pictures of various robots that the teams had built — some showing the robots performing their “mine”-clearing task — and posted them to his blog.)

This was my first time teaching ECE1882. I experienced something I had never seen in my previous decade of teaching: we’d regularly go 15 to 20 minutes past the end of class, and no one would notice because everyone was so deeply engaged. I wouldn’t notice and the students wouldn’t notice. I had to start making a special effort to pay attention to the time and make announcements like “sorry, if you have a class right after this, you really need to go soon.”

Typically, students are obsessed with the clock for one of two reasons: they’re bored out of their skulls in a lecture and wish the minutes would tick by faster, or they’re frantically trying to finish a high-pressure lab that must be completed by a certain time so they’re praying the minutes won’t come as quickly. ECE1882 is constructed so the labs have a good mix of guided activity and open-ended exploration, and sufficient time is allocated so that the students don’t feel rushed. The students are learning while having fun. We cannot make every class like that –- but image what we could accomplish if we would at least try!

The class was quite unlike any class I had previously taught. I use the word “taught” somewhat loosely — for most of the labs and especially the final design challenge, I mostly just made supportive-sounding noises while the teams unleashed their creativity. Although I “lectured” about various topics here and there, the setup of the room — a set of tables with chairs around them for each team, instead of the usual rows of desks all crammed together — made it feel quite weird to do the usual professorial blab-things-while-writing-on-the-white-board schtick. Even when I’m lecturing in a usual rows-of-desks room — that is, every class I’ve taught except this one — I like to bounce around a lot. In this format, I had a difficult time staying by the board at all. I’d find myself at the other side of the room, wishing there was a board there too. Come to think of it, having every wall be a whiteboard would have been cool. Or maybe they should just yank out all the whiteboards altogether!

This was my first time teaching freshman, and it was a blast. But, I had the advantage of teaching freshman who had signed up for a class that they thought would be interesting. ECE1882 is not required of ECE majors, and is largely geared towards “undecided” students; it hopes to show students that ECE is fun. (In the case of my class, though, it seems that most of the students had pretty much already decided on ECE.) It counts as a fairly generic elective credit; several students told me they were using it as an alternative to GT1000, which as far as I can tell is “introduction to college” and probably easier than ECE1882. I’m sure if I was teaching freshman calculus or English composition, my experience would have been quite different. (Also, independent of the inherent interest of the material or its location on the required-to-elective spectrum, I had the advantage of a class with 18 students instead of 180.)

I’m still mentally processing some of the experience; I will probably have more to say about it in the future. In particular, it’s made me more skeptical about “graphical” programming languages (and I was already pretty skeptical), but that’s a topic for another post.

Honesty time: For everything that went well for my section, I must give credit my colleague Jeff Davis, who ran the section before mine, and who made up this semester’s material. Any blame for things that went not-so-well in my section falls on my shoulders. Jeff had taught the class before, but this was my first time, and I am thankful that he didn’t mind me leaning on him so much. I don’t just owe him one; I owe him many.

(It was something of a fluke that I wound up teaching it last semester; Doug Williams, who had originally created the course several years ago, was scheduled to teach it along with Jeff. But when our School chair, Gary May, got promoted to the position of Dean of Engineering, Doug was appointed interim chair, so Joe Hughes, who schedules our classes, needed to find someone else to do it. While I was finishing up ECE2025 grades for the summer, Joe wandered by and said something along the lines of “Aaron, I know you need another teaching assignment in the Fall or the Spring, and I know you like these hands-on kinds of classes…”)

If any Georgia Tech freshmen happen to be reading this during the week the first week of the Spring 2012 semester, David Anderson is teaching ECE1882 this semester. He is a great guy and a fantastic teacher, so go sign up!

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    We found the Lego graphical programming languages pretty much un-fun. Even NQC was better. The Scratch programming language is a much better example of a graphical programming language. There is a Scratch/Arduino hybrid out now, but it did not work well the time I tried it.

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