2022 First-Year Engineering Experience

The First-Year Computer Science Experience Project

Presented at Technical Session M5A

The First-Year Computer Science Experience Project
John Cole
The University of Texas at Dallas
214.500.8960 (mobile)
972.883.6353 (office)

March 27, 2022

The University of Texas at Dallas, along with many other schools, requires an orientation course to introduce students to the broad discipline of computer science or engineering. At UTD, this orientation course is offered only in the fall term, and is required of all freshmen declaring CS or engineering as a major. I’m going to discuss the Computer Science version. A team project, in which students write a program or build something related to computation, should be part of any such course. However, incoming freshmen have widely varying degrees of programming expertise, from none whatsoever to the equivalent of three semesters of introductory courses. In addition, those with programming experience have typically been exposed to Java, and maybe C++ or Python. Such a project must be difficult enough to give students a sense of accomplishment but not so difficult that they give up. It must also give students a sense of what it is like to do actual computer science and software engineering. It must allow for some level of creativity without being too open-ended. Basic guidelines for such a project are:
1. Students with varying levels of experience must be able to specify, design, and implement it in four to six weeks.
2. It must involve sufficient work that the entire team must participate.
3. Projects cannot rely upon extensive programming knowledge.
4. Projects are generally done in phases that build upon each other and are graded separately.
5. Each phase stands alone as much as possible so that difficulties in an earlier phase do not insure a bad grade in a later one.
Learning objectives in assigning such a project are:
1. Learn basic software design principles such as flowcharting and pseudocode.
2. Work with a team.
3. Come up with an idea and refine it.
Instructors at UT Dallas have tried various kinds of projects, from programming to cross-discipline projects involving hardware and software, to papers, and have some data on what works well and what does not. While I do not have quantitative data to support any specific pedagogy for the project, my colleagues and I have written student feedback on various kinds of projects. In this paper I draw from my own experience of having taught multiple sections of this course for the last seven years as well as talking with and observing other instructors.

  1. Prof. John Cole The University of Texas at Dallas [biography]
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