UI professor builds new IT project and finds students to help with development

Photo courtesy of the Illinois I-STEM Education Initiative

Geoffrey Challen, Associate Professor at LAS, poses for a photo in front of his computer in his Siebold office. Challen is looking for students to help him with his new project from which peers can add and learn valuable information.

Geoffrey Challen, Associate Professor at LAS, has created a course website as a resource for students learning to code. Now he’s leading a new project where students create a common website where they can add and learn from valuable information.

The CS 124: Introduction to Computer Science I website has undergone big changes during the pandemic to support students in online learning.

(Some of the changes include) the new daily lesson format, containing the interactive tours, new homework issues that have been completed through the website, a new quiz system, and a new online help site where students can ask questions and get staff help with their code, ”said Challen.

The initial form of this website was part of CS 125: Introduction to Computing in Fall 2020. Challen has been maintaining the website since Fall 2017. In the spring, he built the first version of the website for online help, and in the summer he finalized the vision for this website.

CS 124 was part of a larger review of the curriculum he helped implement, which came into effect in the fall. As part of this change, CS 125 was reduced from four to three credit hours, and CS 128: Introduction to Computer Science II was introduced, which is being taught for the first time this semester.

Colleen Lewis, LAS professor and CS 124 co-trainer, added 305 contributions to this site this semester. Contributions vary from adding a lesson guide, solution guide, or lesson video.

“Colleen was more involved as an instructor,” said Challen. “And so she really takes on the role of generating more and more content.”

The CS 124 website is a clear structure that students can use and learn at their own pace.

“It also shows the truth behind this where Geoff and I are going to write code in our recording and these recorded tours, and we’ll make mistakes and be confused,” Lewis said. “And so that naturally includes more real-time debugging… I think it’s humanizing and it’s honest.”

This interactive website allows students to hear voices and explanations from multiple angles.

“I realize, as a white man in computer science, that my voice has often been somewhat overrepresented in the history of computer science,” Challen said. “I think that in order to help broaden the appeal of computing and computing, it helps to be able to diversify the voice with which the course speaks.”

Now Challen has decided to start a new project where he trains a group of students to create a website where students can take the initiative to move the website forward.

The project consists of creating a YouTube channel and then creating a website, which is done by integration. Challen said the integration involves taking an embed code from what is uploaded to YouTube. The embed code is a small piece of HTML code that you can paste into your website.

HTML is a description that indicates what a specific site should look like.

“I think it’s really helpful for students to learn from other students or from people who are closer in their level of knowledge,” Lewis said. “There are what are called expert blind spots, because I know the content so well that it’s really hard for me to understand where students are going to get stuck. “

“We’re trying to get to the point where we have a site where someone can record one of these demos and embed it on their course website,” said Challen.

Being a part of this project will give students the opportunity to build something that others can use. Challen thinks that the students in the computer science program don’t get much practice with designing interfaces and building something that people actually use. This is the opportunity to do web design and web development.

“They’ll be working with this huge and complex codebase with mentoring faculty members, and I think it’s a good learning opportunity that you might not get unless it’s more of a internship, ”Lewis said.

Over time, Challen hopes to create a course that creates the best way to explain concepts to a large community of people.

“YouTube is a fun twist, but I think what underlies all of this is a fundamental transformation in the way we think courses work,” said Challen. “What it means to teach a class.”

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