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George Mason University

Learning by Doing: SPARC Grant From Google Begins Third Year This Fall

June 13, 2017   /   by Martha Bushong

A grant from tech giant Google is helping Assistant Professor Kinga Dobolyi and other computer science faculty develop and analyze innovative ways to teach introductory courses.

When she isn’t teaching, writing code, or building websites, Volgenau School of Engineering Assistant Professor of Computer Science Kinga Dobolyi likes to paint using acrylics and soft pastels. 

“When painting I can take advantage of the happy accidents,” said Dobolyi. “On the surface this doesn’t seem like the best way to approach computer science, but when you experience the a-ha moments in teaching, it can sometimes feel like a happy accident."

Thanks to a $900,000 grant from tech giant Google, Dobolyi and others are changing up their teaching and experiencing more “a-ha moments.”

Introduction to Computer Science (CS112) is the engineering equivalent of freshman composition. At Volgenau, almost all engineering students, regardless of their majors, must pass this course.  The course is challenging to students, especially if it is their first encounter with writing code.

To meet the growing need for computer science faculty and to address the divergent learning styles of college freshmen, faculty in the department developed a unique method of self-paced learning and guided instruction.

“Our concept goes beyond increasing capacity and includes increasing retention and enrollment by women and underrepresented groups,” said Professor Jeff Offutt, who is the grant’s principal investigator.

Offutt explained that the method replaces the 19th century conveyor belt model of education with a 21st century black belt model. 

With SPARC, which stands for Self-Paced Learning Increases Retention and Capacity, students collaborate on practice assignments, and when they’re ready, present themselves for individual assessments, similar to karate students who earn belts by demonstrating their forms in front of instructors. 

Advanced and fast-learning students may speed through the courses, while less advanced and slower-learning students can proceed at a slower pace. As the grant finishes its second year, the team is beginning to see results. 

“The most exciting, and maybe the most depressing thing I’ve discovered is that my students learn better when I don’t lecture,” said Dobolyi. “If I had a big ego, I might be offended.” 

SPARC uses a flipped classroom, which replaces traditional lectures with guided practice. Dobolyi said she loves teaching not lecturing so the flipped classroom is a perfect fit for her. Dobolyi spends time helping students work through specific challenges. 

“I enjoy discovering where they are stuck and helping them get unstuck,” said Dobolyi. “I think the best way to learn to write code is to actually write code.”

A key ingredient to the success of SPARC is its use of undergraduate teaching assistants (UGTAs) like Zach Baker. After Baker completed CS112, Dobolyi offered him a position as an UGTA which he accepted.

"I love being able to teach topics in simple ways,” said Baker. “It's encouraging to see students discover new concepts when I explain them. It reinforces my own understanding, making me a better teacher. I also appreciate that my public speaking has improved dramatically.”

In the next year the team plans to extend SPARC into five sections and use more teaching assistants. Two of these sections will be for CS 211, another basic computer science course with high enrollments.

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