Justin Li


Education and Games

2009-07-24

I'm in the middle of CTY, and I'm having a grand time. If I come back next year, I'll be back as an instructor. The future's not certain though, and there are several factors preventing me from coming back. First, CTY fits Northwestern's schedule really well - we end mid-June, then I have a week before CTY starts. UMich though ends mid-May, which means CTY cuts my summer in half. That  means it's harder to get things, and I can't just start research later during the summer - I'll have to start it, stop for a few weeks, then go back to it. Of course, the whole research thing will probably be the main competitor for my time. I really wish I could come back though; I'll have to talk to my advisor about it.

Anyway, this post isn't about my 2010 summer plans. I started off saying that I want to be back as an instructor because I was thinking about ways to improve the course. While the course as it stands is pretty good, there are several things which bugs me. For example, the pre and post tests are almost irrelevant to the course material; I'm sure I can think of some better questions which deals with breaking goals into steps, or how information travels through a program, or how to build sturdy objects.

One thing that my instructor did, and which I like a lot, is the focus on not only robots, but on design as well. Before each big project, we have the kids fill out design documents, so they have to think through what their problem is, and how their robot will solve that problem. Right now though, the design templates are very heavily physical. There is no room to do some good thinking about the program, where as there's an area for a sketch of the robot. I would totally redesign the design sheet, so the hardware and software components are given enough time. I also think there's some space for more reflective questions; for example, start off by asking the kids what they think will be hard, then afterwards asking them whether they predicted correctly, and if not, what was harder than expected and why.

All this led to thoughts of flow charts, which I know the other robotics class do. We never teach the kids flowcharts, although I learned that some earlier iterations of the class do have that in the curriculum. The main problem, I think, is that we don't deal with branches and loops until Thursday, and by then it's a little late to start adding flow charts to the design process, especially if they've already filled out several of those sheets. One option, I guess, is to move the branches and loops lesson to earlier in the week. My only qualm with that is how comfortable the kids will be with that material that early. And besides, flow charts don't work very well with variables anyway (as a side note, is there any kind of diagram allows the diagrammer to keep track of variables over time?).

So I was thinking about flow charts, and how to best structure the class so kids can learn more abstract concepts, when I found myself wondering how video games have tutorials which slowly guide the player to more advanced skills. The tutorials have to start off easy, get progressively harder, but at the same time must remain fun for the whole time. And isn't that exactly what we want to do at CTY? Yes we're cramming a lot of material into the kids' brains, but it's also supposed to be fun. In this sense, I liked what one of my other instructors did; he had a theme of the students being robot builders throughout the course, and told them that at the end they'll be "little Gorts". This is in essence a "leveling system", so the kids feel like they've accomplished something.

But really, I think game designers should talk to educators more, so kids are learning more but remain engaged.

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