Getting a dozen 20 year olds to work together for fun and … social good

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In Spring 2015, we ran an experimental course that explored the intersection of three trends related to the AMPLab mission and its role in educating students at the world’s best public university.

First, as the boundaries of computing grow, the scale and complexity of the problems that we tackle grows. This means that most impactful work is done collaboratively, and as we have seen in the AMPLab, across previously separate disciplines.

Second, as David Patterson pointed out in his NYT OpEd, there is need for long-term and sustained system building to tackle large-scale social problems that goes beyond one night hackathons.

Third, as David Corman from the NSF pointed out in his keynote at PerCom 2015, many students are now entering EECS departments with significant prior programming expertise, and we need to develop instructional techniques that can build on that base while challenging them and deepening their understanding.

In our course, we attempted to address all these issues by scaling up the”undergraduate assistant” concept 10 fold. We ran a small (~11 people) undergraduate research seminar that allowed students with skills across a variety of disciplines to work in small groups on various aspects of our e-mission research project.

In contrast to other undergraduate project classes, the students worked on three aspects of a single large-scale system, and the goal was to build a real, end to end system rather than a prototype.

The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) ran a nice story on the class this week.

Did it work? In many ways, yes. The exercise of preparing for the class – planning a syllabus, making the code ready for others to contribute, turning on automated tests – was a forcing function to help clarify the focus of the project. The students liked the class (rating: 6.6/7) and felt that it was useful (rating: 6.2/7). We built a system that works together end to end and generates results.

But it was definitely not perfect. The end to end system is startup/prototype quality. It is good enough to play around with possibilities, but it is not yet good enough to use for a real world evaluation.

The two biggest challenges were a reflection of those faced in any team setting, but magnified by the differences between the academic and industry environments.

First, this was just one class on students’ packed schedules and they had to prioritize it accordingly. But that made coordinating dependencies between components tricky – if students A and B were responsible for modules A and B, and B depended on A, but student A had a midterm one week, she was not going to work on module A until it was done. And by the time she could get to module A, it might be midterm time for student B.

Second, we had a strong Lake Woebegon effect – everybody needed to get an A. In a normal class setting, having some students turn in B or C level work does not affect others. But here, a student who tried to use B or C level work had to spend time cleaning it up before she could use it, which lead to resentment. This is true of all project classes, but was amplified here because all project teams were working on a single system.

Added in were a steep learning curve, different skill levels across the interdisciplinary teams, and a “testing takes too much time” attitude. We had to spend significant time and effort as the “glue” – establishing an overall framework structure, integrating all the disparate pieces at the end and forcing the development of at least minimal test cases.

If we were to do it again, it would be interesting to structure it as a year long course. That would help with the learning curve, and give us another semester to make the system robust and conduct a comprehensive evaluation. We would also plan for building more of the framework ourselves in order to reduce dependencies between students. It is an interesting pedagogical challenge to figure out how to do this while still giving students the experience of building something large and complex.

When might that happen? Not this Fall, for sure. How about next Spring or later? Only time will tell… :)