July 20, 2012
With support from a National Science Foundation research grant, Knox College faculty member David Bunde and a group of Knox students are developing new strategies for teaching computer science at the undergraduate level.
Their work focuses on parallel computing -- basically, a method of programming that better utilizes the multiple processors (or cores) that are increasingly prevalent in computer hardware and enable applications to run faster.
Some computer scientists have taught parallel computing for many years, but almost exclusively to students in upper-division elective courses and in graduate schools, said Bunde, associate professor of computer science at Knox. Undergraduates, especially those in their first year of college, typically haven't studied the subject.
Bunde (in photo above) said his NSF research explores the question: "How do you make this material, which everyone kind of regards as advanced and esoteric, into something we could teach everybody?"
"If all computers are going to be parallel computers, all programmers need to know how to program parallel computers -- including somebody fresh out of college," he added. "This project is one vision of how to do that -- how do we make parallel computing broadly accessible to our (computer science) majors, and by extension, to the rest of the world?"
In a three-year collaboration with faculty and students at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Bunde and several Knox students are exploring programming languages that were designed for parallel computing but aren't in widespread use. They also are developing tutorials and practice exercises to help undergraduates learn the languages.
"The purpose of these tutorials is to simplify teaching of parallel programming languages, given that the currently available teaching resources are cryptic or non-existent, for the most part," said Knox student Andrei Papancea (in photo at right). A junior from Romania, he is one of the students assisting with Bunde's research.
Papancea, who plans to attend graduate school, said the summer research project has been a useful experience for him.
"I definitely got a good grasp of what research entails, and I got more experience working in a team," he said. "I furthered my knowledge of the topic of parallel programming, and thus broadened my knowledge of computer science."
Casey Samoore, a 2012 Knox graduate, started working on the project when it launched in mid-2011.
"The opportunity to do actual work in your field and get paid to do it was very exciting," said Samoore, who plans on a career in computer science education. "It confirmed just how interested I was in computer science and education."
Originally from Springfield, Illinois, Samoore (in photo at right) presented his research at the 2012 conference of the National Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). He also was among the students selected for Knox College's inaugural showcase of student research and creative work, Horizons: A Celebration of Student Inquiry, Imagination, and Creativity, during Spring Term 2012.
Participating in the NSF research project enables the Knox students to explore a potential career path, gain additional marketable skills, and maybe even help to shape the future of computer science, Bunde said. Other Knox students, too, will benefit from the work, he added.
"Certainly, there are places that are doing good parallel computing education. We're definitely on that list," he said. "We've worked very hard to introduce (parallel computing) not just once, not just in the specialized course, but throughout the curriculum."