Knox Faculty Member Earns Computer Science Education Grant

November 06, 2012

By Laura Pochodylo ‘14Jaime Spacco

Knox College faculty member Jaime Spacco, assistant professor of computer science, has received a grant from the Association of Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). He is working on an educational tool to increase understanding of how to effectively teach introductory computer science.

Cloud Coder, the project Spacco and his former graduate school roommate Dave Hovemeyer are working on, has been in the works since spring 2011.

"We are building a Web service where you can do short programming exercises and it will give you immediate feedback," said Spacco, a member of the Knox faculty since 2010.

The Cloud Coder program is inspired by other intelligent tutoring systems that use an adaptive approach to more effectively teach individual students at their skill levels.

While the program allows students to practice their programming skills, it also provides the professor with an understanding of what questions work well, and which ones seem harder. This is data needed in the computer science education field, Spacco explains.

"There is considerable debate about what is the right way to teach introductory programming. Math education, physics education, basically every other discipline knows much more about teaching their introductory courses," Spacco said. "Our introductory courses have only existed for a couple of decades. Math has existed for centuries. They have a much bigger head start."

Cloud Coder aims to use an exercise-sharing program to collect data and give students a wider range of programming questions. When professors write exercises, they can submit them to a repository that makes the same exercises available to other students using the program.

"We are interested in knowing, (for example) do I inadvertently teach to the types of questions I ask? So if I were to use a question from somebody else, would my students do better on that question or worse than the other students from the instructor that wrote the question?" Spacco said. "It also, to some extent, gives us an idea of how difficult the questions are that people are assigning and if there are particularly good types of questions."

Cloud Coder is currently being used by a pilot group of four schools: Canisius College, Knox College, University of Auckland, and York College, where Spacco's partner Hovemeyer is an associate professor of computer science.

The project has gained recognition at other schools, including Carnegie Mellon University.

"I managed to get myself invited to Carnegie Mellon to talk about this and talk about similar work we did in graduate school together, because they have an educational data-mining group that's very active there," Spacco said.

Hovemeyer and Spacco are hoping the SIGSCE grant will help their project grow.

"It's jump-starting the project. It's the seed money to get things going," Spacco said. "I'm hoping to leverage this into something bigger. What we would like to do is get a lot of people in the computer science community aware of our tool and using our tool."