Thursday, August 12, 2010

Class Projects: The Good, the Bad, and the Future Value

In my prior post about the student projects posted from Cornell's ECE 4760 program, I mentioned how nice it is, as a teacher, to see these reports and get a sense of how what I do with my classes compares. Class projects have their limitations, but they're tremendously valuable for the students.

The Good Parts:

  • Allows students to develop and build on their own ideas.
  • Lets them exercise the knowledge they've gained.
  • Gives opportunities to discover gaps in their knowledge.
  • Introduces time and resource constraints to practical work.
  • Teaches teamwork skills.
  • Opens up "teachable moments" not accessible through regular classwork.

The (sort of) Bad Parts:

  • Time and resources are never sufficient.
  • Substantial amounts of effort can be expended on fruitless effort.
  • Non-self starters can falter easily.
  • Much of the class grade rests on work patterns with which many students are unskilled.
  • Teams don't always gel.

I say "sort of" bad, because these are the same sorts of problems that are encountered outside the classroom. In the classroom, the cost of failure is a less than sterling grade--and not even necessarily that. Failure in the classroom is not the same as commercial failure. A non-working project does not necessarily result in a poor grade (though one that works as planned will usually garner a better grade.) The classroom is a good place to be pushed and challenged.

The Future Value:

  • Lessons learned when doing projects are often more valuable outside the classroom, in terms of time spent, than much else that is done in the classroom.
  • Recognition of the value of people and communications skills alongside technical skills.
  • Understanding that technical work must be accomplished to have success, even in the face of uncertainty.
  • Learning to build on strengths, rather than be halted by shortcomings.
  • Experiencing how great the gap is between a technically successful demonstration and a finished product.

The road to a finished product is seldom traveled to its end in a class project. There just isn't time in most class schedules, even if the students spend time outside class working on the project. However, a sense of the length of that road is obtained, I find. And a new appreciation for the effort that goes into the "second 90%" of work on a product is developed.

In my class, the teams get a chance to see what happens when actual users lay hands on the project results as well. The developers of a program have to watch silently as members of another team try to use their product. They get to learn more in 20 minutes than I could give them in hours of lecture.

The best part of class projects, in my opinion? It's a lot more fun than limiting a class to assigned classwork. I try to spend as little time on teaching the necessary material as possible before setting my students loose to discover on their own. It's something that not only do I enjoy more, but my students, so long as they keep the project in perspective, can enjoy a lot more than assigned work. It's very jarring for some to be set loose this way, but once they're helped over the hump everyone has a really good time with it.

Plus, they get to have an actual thing out there with their name on it. Something they can point to and say

"I did that."

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