Very often is seems as though teacher tend to assign projects that mean little if anything to any one. It is as if we feel that learning is medicine that only works if it tastes bad. If students enjoy a book does that mean it is recreational and so inappropriate for school? Is creating a technically challenging computer game invalid because the result is something that can be played? Do we really think that having fun means less learning is going on? It seems that way sometimes. Oh sure someone may enjoy reading “A Separate Peace” but I don’t know that I personally know any of them. (With the possible exception of a few English teachers.) Some times I assigned a check balancing program to students but, honestly, even I found it sort of boring. My students seemed less than excited about it as well.
Other times we’re smarter about projects. We pick projects that spark creativity, imagination and most importantly they are projects that students care about. And we pick projects that require students to think rather than just follow rote instructions. I think that last part is important.
I talked to a teacher who is working to integrate technology into her schools curriculum the other day. She was saying that she had her 8th graders doing some projects with Glogster. She showed them how to use the site and gave them some ideas of what could be done and then cut them lose. Several of them really didn’t know what to do with themselves at first. They wanted step by step “do this then do this” sorts of instructions because that was what they are used to. This was not the intent of the project though. Eventually they loosened up, started trying things and really got creative. I saw some of the projects and they were really cool. Even more importantly the students were showing their work off to peers, sharing ideas, and teaching each other new things. I somehow doubt that near as much of that would be going on if they had had the step by step project they thought they wanted.
I think that we need to be open ended about projects in computer science. Oh sure we need the general exercise that demonstrates a concepts and the syntax that makes it work. Maybe we even need (shudder) worksheets at times. But when we really want students to learn how to use things, to go the extra bit, and to be motivated to actually remember the tool and develop problem solving skills we probably don’t want to be all “step by step.” There has to be a balance somewhere. There have to be projects that students want to solve for reasons other than just a grade.
This may mean looking for students to help design projects rather than forcing what is interesting to us or what is “good medicine” for us on them. As I look back on the projects that worked best in my classes they are almost always the once that grew out of a digression conversation that was started by students. At some point I would find myself “let’s make a project out of this and see where it goes.” Did it take me out of my comfort zone? A little. Fortunately I have a lot of programming experience (more than the average HS CS teacher I think) and so I felt I could code up a good solution quickly. For someone with less programming that may be even more daunting but at the same time there is nothing at all wrong with a teacher learning along side their students. I’ve looked into new areas for me with students several times. The guide on the side is a wonderful experience.