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1 Postscript

TeachScheme! and co-op

Aug 19, 2010

Some 18 years ago, John Dennis, the chairman of the Rice Computer Science Department at the time, and I had lunch in our conference room. He basically told me that full professors teach service courses—especially those who get there after five years—and that the introductory course was waiting for This thought is a supplement to What is TeachScheme!. me. This is how I got started with freshman courses. After nine years at Rice, I moved to Northeastern and continued the development here.

At Rice, TeachScheme! had a highly local impact. It grew the introductory course by a factor of two, even before the web bubble started. But the impact of HtDP/TeachScheme! beyond the first course was difficult to discern. I just didn’t understand the need for a bridge between my first course—which used all of HtDP and two more chapters—and the downstream curriculum. My vision for the TeachScheme! curriculum had only started to evolve and I think it showed. At Northeastern, I was able to implement almost all of it.

Northeastern is nothing like Rice. Most importantly, it is a co-op university. All of our students—several hundred in each of the two shifts—are required to complete three six-month co-op positions during their five years here. Their employers—Northeastern works with several hundred of them, small and large, local, domestic, and international— report back to our co-op faculty who collect a portfolio on each student. During these co-ops, these students find out what is useful; what works; and what is truly relevant—as opposed to fashionable.

Prior to my arrival, Northeastern had been using a standard curriculum for two decades: three terms of the currently fashionable language (Pascal, C++, Java), using a set of extremely graphics-rich exercises intertwined with lessons on practical applications. The curriculum was widely published in SIGCSE and related communities, but it didn’t work. At the height of the web bubble, only around one third of the students got programming co-ops; most others ended up as “techies” as they called themselves: moving computers, running scripts, setting up routers and networks, etc. And all of this education cost $150,000 tuition.

After a year at Northeastern, our dean asked me to take over the first course. The first instance was a success—contrary to predictions from some local faculty. Even though it had been considered a trial, we switched to the TeachScheme! curriculum permanently; the dean suggested that I design a bridge course to connect the HtDP course to the rest of the curriculum; this started my collaboration on HtDC with Viera Proulx. See the postscript below. Within a couple of years, I started hearing from our co-op faculty that the share of programming positions was going up. By 2007—the last time I was involved with the course—I was told that the ratio of programming on the first co-op went up to two thirds and higher. In the meantime, all TeachScheme! courses have been taught by numerous faculty members with rather different teaching styles and personalities than my own. The ratio of programming co-op has risen to three quarters and more, and all the downstream faculty are happy about the students’ programming skills.

Surprisingly the story doesn’t end here. Also three years ago, our co-op employers started complaining that our MS-level co-ops were worse programmers than our third-year undergraduates. The graduate dean would regularly forward me these email complaints; at some point I also met with two company representatives. Eventually these complaints got so bad that the dean asked me whether I could condense the three-semester HtDP curriculum into a one-semester “boot camp” for MS students.

I don’t think it is possible to condense the three semesters into one, but after two years of experimentation, I have found a way to run a one-semester Bootcamp for MS students that mixes essential elements from all three courses: the design recipe for FP and OOP programming; practice with lots of teaching languages code and some class-based Racket code for four weeks; pair programming and code walks. The co-op faculty are impressed by the change in abilities. They believe they see more satisfaction from our co-op employers. The final jury is still out but the deans are happy enough to ask me to expand the TeachScheme! curriculum at the MS level, too. In the spring, I will start the design of a second-semester Bootcamp course.

Every teacher has stories about the best students, how they found wonderful jobs, how they confirmed the teachings with letters and messages. I am happy to report that TeachScheme! helped hundreds of students, the whole range of students—yes, I do get thank-you notes from some of the weakest students—and an equally wide range of employers.

1 Postscript

The initial improvement in our co-op employment happened over the first five years of TeachScheme! at Northeastern.

The recent marginal improvement in our co-op employment coincides with a period when Northeastern started raising the SAT requirements for some of its strong majors, including computer science. Hence detractors may argue that the most recent co-op improvement is due to the higher SAT score.

We are experiencing the same development at the MS level. Without changes in the GRE score requirements, we see positive developments in our co-op interviews after deploying the TeachScheme! curriculum.