Increasing competency in C

Even to the most seasoned instructor, when 450 students take their seats on the first day of class, the landscape can feel intimidating. Confident achievers sit down in the lecture hall beside curious learners and annoyed students. Some arrive with years of coding experience, whereas others are just starting out. How can an instructor possibly meet the needs of such a disparate array of students and offer each a path to success? For Dr. Robert Gysel, a professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Davis, the solution is zyBooks.

“I use zyBooks mainly for one of our lower-division core computer science courses, which is taught using C,” Dr. Gysel explains. Since C is considered a general purpose language, it is a prerequisite not only for computer science majors, but for engineers as well. Consequently, students with diverse backgrounds and skill sets are required to enroll in Dr. Gysel’s course. Despite the learning and competency differences in his class, his zyBook was critical to addressing an all-too-familiar issue within college classes: completing regular reading, which, Dr. Gysel admits, “students are often either not willing to do on their own, do not understand the benefit, or do not make the time for due to the rest of their class load.” After introducing his zyBook into the syllabus, however, Dr. Gysel noticed that it was easier to enforce and monitor regular, scheduled reading.

Hand in hand with helping to raise reading rates, Dr. Gysel also attributes other areas of students’ growing capacity to his zyBook. “Students clearly understand more from the zyBook,” he acknowledged, noting a sharp distinction between his zyBook and the traditional textbook he had previously used. “I have noticed that the students are more competent in all areas; this includes one-on-one conversations with my students along with better work on homework and exam. It allows me to make the course simultaneously more accessible and more challenging, because I know the students have put in work outside the classroom.”

A better way to promote active learning in a MATLAB course

One of the more challenging courses to teach in an engineering discipline is computer programming. Focusing only on algorithms and programming blocks leaves little time to build a connection to daily engineering problems. On the other hand, teaching based on problem solving does not allow for a deeper comprehension of algorithm development. “Finding the right balance between these approaches was the issue that we had faced in the Cal Poly Pomona Aerospace Engineering Department for teaching MATLAB,” Dr. Nakhjiri explains. “I decided to try a different approach.”

A traditional textbook cannot adequately engage the students in the process of learning. “No textbook could provide the level of student interaction I was hoping for, until I found the MATLAB zyBook,” he notes. The zyBook platform not only encourages the student to become an active learner; it also challenges the traditional learning environment with a focus on hands-on experience. “Cal Poly Pomona Aerospace Engineering is famous for its learn-by-doing approach. Why not use an innovative platform such as zyBooks to implement the same approach to teaching MATLAB programming?” he suggests.

Dr. Nakhjiri used zyBooks’ platform for a relatively large group of students in a flipped classroom style. Students completed readings and embedded activities in the MATLAB zyBook each week, and lecture time was dedicated to applying that knowledge to simple engineering problems. “A flipped classroom provided the opportunity to discuss engineering problems with my students knowing that they have already learned the material needed for that week,” reports Dr. Nakhjiri. The interactive segments in the zyBook promoted active learning, and the instructor dashboard allowed Dr. Nakhjiri to easily track student progress and identify common challenges to discuss in class. Using these tools, he could determine which students struggled with a certain topic and provide them with appropriate resources. This approach would be much more difficult with a traditional textbook.

Student feedback at the end of the quarter was positive. They liked the zyBook and found it very effective compared to traditional textbooks. Many students showed more interest in studying other programming languages. For Dr. Nakhjiri, affordability, excellent customer service, and meaningful student engagement are his reasons to continue using his zyBook. He concludes: “The interactive zyBook platform is a step forward toward personalized education. It is now upon us, instructors and students, to help improve these platforms by sharing our experience and needs with innovators. I look forward to using the MATLAB zyBook next year in my class.”

One of the more challenging courses to teach in an engineering discipline is computer programming. Focusing only on algorithms and programming blocks leaves little time to build a connection to daily engineering problems. On the other hand, teaching based on problem solving does not allow for a deeper comprehension of algorithm development. “Finding the right balance between these approaches was the issue that we had faced in the Cal Poly Pomona Aerospace Engineering Department for teaching MATLAB,” Dr. Nakhjiri explains. “I decided to try a different approach.”

A traditional textbook cannot adequately engage the students in the process of learning. “No textbook could provide the level of student interaction I was hoping for, until I found the MATLAB zyBook,” he notes. The zyBook platform not only encourages the student to become an active learner; it also challenges the traditional learning environment with a focus on hands-on experience. “Cal Poly Pomona Aerospace Engineering is famous for its learn-by-doing approach. Why not use an innovative platform such as zyBooks to implement the same approach to teaching MATLAB programming?” he suggests.

Dr. Nakhjiri used zyBooks’ platform for a relatively large group of students in a flipped classroom style. Students completed readings and embedded activities in the MATLAB zyBook each week, and lecture time was dedicated to applying that knowledge to simple engineering problems. “A flipped classroom provided the opportunity to discuss engineering problems with my students knowing that they have already learned the material needed for that week,” reports Dr. Nakhjiri. The interactive segments in the zyBook promoted active learning, and the instructor dashboard allowed Dr. Nakhjiri to easily track student progress and identify common challenges to discuss in class. Using these tools, he could determine which students struggled with a certain topic and provide them with appropriate resources. This approach would be much more difficult with a traditional textbook.

Student feedback at the end of the quarter was positive. They liked the zyBook and found it very effective compared to traditional textbooks. Many students showed more interest in studying other programming languages. For Dr. Nakhjiri, affordability, excellent customer service, and meaningful student engagement are his reasons to continue using his zyBook. He concludes: “The interactive zyBook platform is a step forward toward personalized education. It is now upon us, instructors and students, to help improve these platforms by sharing our experience and needs with innovators. I look forward to using the MATLAB zyBook next year in my class.”

Dr. Navid Nakhjiri is an assistant professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. He is passionate about exploring new ideas and teaching methods that could result in a more productive classroom experience for his students. Dr. Nakhjiri believes that the future of education will include more personalized teaching approaches that meet each student’s unique strengths and abilities.

 

Dr. Navid Nakhjiri is an assistant professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona. He is passionate about exploring new ideas and teaching methods that could result in a more productive classroom experience for his students. Dr. Nakhjiri believes that the future of education will include more personalized teaching approaches that meet each student’s unique strengths and abilities.

Discrete Math: out with the tome, in with the zyBook

Dr. Sandy Irani is a longtime Professor of Computer Science at UC Irvine. And like any good professor, she constantly looks for ways to improve the classroom experience. But over the years, Dr. Irani has kept running into the same issue; the classic textbook for her Discrete Mathematics course (considered the “standard” across universities) was just not as effective as she had hoped.

At 800 pages, the textbook was large, heavy, and had a $230 price tag to match. Students balked at the price, and many did not buy the book. Instead, they tried to get 100% of the class’s content from lectures alone. This frustrated Dr. Irani since “a key component of the learning process — preparation and reinforcement via text — was missing.” Of the students who did spend $230 on the book, even fewer actually used it. “I struggled with how to convey the crucial information found in the textbook to students in a meaningful way, without diluting the material. I really wanted the students to engage with the content more actively,” she adds.

Two years ago, Dr. Irani happened to see a demo of a new interactive textbook replacement called a “zyBook” for another subject (Computer Programming). “I could see how the dynamics of the zyBook could carry over into Discrete Mathematics and solve a lot of the problems I was facing,” she notes. To Dr. Irani, the zyBook’s animations “had the ability to show things moving through time – a much more powerful teaching tool than a static powerpoint, chalkboard, or textbook.”

The succinct style, replete with interactive examples, provided an opportunity for students to learn by doing. The price per course (under $50) appealed to her as well. If a zyBook was affordable and accessible on top of being effective, Dr. Irani was confident that students would be motivated to buy it. She then set about authoring the Discrete Mathematics zyBook.

Authoring of the zyBook was easy. “There is an incredible esprit de corps among the zyBooks team and they are great to work with,” says Dr. Irani. “Since I was doing the authoring while I was teaching full-time, advising and doing research, I had to fit it in wherever I could. If I sent a question to the zyBooks support staff at 8pm on a Saturday evening, I’d get a response back very quickly.” Dr. Irani found the experience rewarding, but notes she is glad it’s not over. “I still work with the support team to incorporate feedback from other instructors and students — there is continuous improvement.”

Departmental transition to the zyBook was also smooth. Colleagues and students alike were eager to try this new, affordable, interactive option, and Dr. Irani has now successfully utilized the zyBook for 4 quarters.

“My favorite thing about the zyBook is that students actually use it,” she says.

Dr. Irani is able to keep track of student progress through her customized portal, and students are able to easily communicate questions and ideas. “I can see from the reporting tool what they ‘get’ and ‘don’t get’,” she observes. “I can run through the animations in class, illustrating the dynamics as well as giving [students] my commentary.”

With the adoption of zyBooks, Dr. Irani no longer has to depend on her lecture being the only source of content for her students. “I can skip the basics and use the time to lecture more interactively and on more advanced content,” she says. “The classroom really changes.”

User spotlight: Dr. Nelly Cardinale, Eastern Florida State College

The year was 1979, the screen was black and the text was orange. This was the year Dr. Nelly Cardinale purchased her first computer, an Apple II.  It came with four textbooks on programming and nothing else.  “If you wanted to do anything on the computer back then, you had to do it yourself,” Cardinale explains. “There were no apps or programs.  You had to write your own.” She taught herself the Applesoft Basic Programming language, and Nelly’s passion for programming was borne.

In January 1994, shortly after the Internet was available to the general public, Dr. Cardinale began teaching the Pascal programming language. Later that year, a second version of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) was released. At that time, the college where she taught did not even have a website. She collaborated with a former college professor, who opened up the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) in her area, and made arrangements to give her students their first live Internet presentation. Not only did her students attend, but so did some of the college’s faculty, staff and administrators.

Fast forward to 2015. Dr. Cardinale is now a fully tenured Professor of Computer Science at Eastern Florida State College. She is a certified CompTia A+, Network+, and Linux+ Professional. She teaches two Principles of Programming classes during the fall and spring semesters – one during the day and the other in the evening.

This is the first time Dr. Cardinale is using a zyBook to teach programming, and it is really making a difference. “The minute I opened a zyBook, I was hooked,” exclaims Cardinale. Prior to using a zyBook, her students used two traditional textbooks to learn programming, and Cardinale always hoped for more.  Because she is using a zyBook, she now sees her students engage and have fun the way she does when she is programming.

“You don’t learn programming by reading, you learn programming by doing,” says Cardinale. The interactivity inside the zyBooks keeps her students engaged and keeps them coming back for more.

Halfway through the semester, Cardinale took stock of her two classes and realized that she still had 100% retention in one class and 80% retention in her other one. “I have never seen these types of retention rates in any of my programming classes during my 23 years of teaching! And yesterday, while looking out over my classroom, I realized all students in my Principles of Programming classes were completely engaged in the Python zyBook chapters.”

In both of Dr. Cardinale’s classes, she alternates lecturing out of an algorithm book on a zyBook topic one week and then working together with students in class the following week on the zyBook chapters. “In both classes, all students are passing,” reports Cardinale. “And I really feel that the zyBook platform is making the biggest difference.”

Dr. Cardinale assigns 10% of the overall grade for completion of assigned Participation Activities and 15% of the overall grade for completion of the Challenge Activities inside the zyBook.  She has students do the zyBook assignments while in class, but she also reports that some of her students go above and beyond what she requires and complete more advanced zyBook chapters by themselves.

“A big surprise for me,” Cardinale explains, “was that none of the students seems to be struggling to understand the material or write the code that the book is asking them for. In the zyBooks, students can program right on the platform. It automatically grades all exercises and gives students hints on how to do each programming problem, and students get immediate feedback.  The zyBook platform also animates the computer programming steps being processed by the computer, which is something that professors cannot do during regular class lectures.”

Dr. Cardinale likens the zyBook platform to the equivalent of providing an individual programming tutor for each of her students. “They can learn new skills, apply them on the spot, right on the book platform, and get immediate individualized feedback and hints for solving programming problems,” she explains.  “As a professor, I cannot help them in this way during regular class time and still accomplish the goal of teaching the objectives for the course.”

As great as her experience with zyBook has been, Dr. Cardinale does have one concern over using zyBooks:  “I worry about the other professors teaching computer science that are not yet using zyBooks.  They’re going to have a problem on their hands when they try to hand a textbook to a student accustomed to the fun of a zyBook.”

Success in learning and teaching

Wendy Hankes has taught high school classes for 24 years and is an expert at picking up new things fast. But when the principal of Big Spring High School in Pennsylvania asked her to teach a brand new Intro to Java course the next school year, even Ms. Hankes was overwhelmed.

“I was going to be teaching Java and I did not know anything about Java,” Hankes remembers. With only a few months at her disposal, Hankes rushed to sign up for a popular online Java course, but it was not helpful. “I did not get much out of it,” Hankes says.

Then Hankes heard about zyBooks from a fellow instructor. She sat down with the Programming in Java zyBook and, in the span of one summer, taught herself how to program in Java well enough so that she could teach it.

With the school year rapidly approaching, Big Spring administrators once again approached Hankes regarding the Java course. “I told them I’d be glad to teach it as long as I could use the zyBook,” Hankes recalls. “When I sat down with the zyBook, I got it!”

Students were hesitant about the zyBook at the beginning, especially as most had no programming background, and the zyBook, by design, demands more interaction than a static textbook. But within a couple of hours, students were writing working programs in Java.

“They were thrilled,” Hankes recounts. “They come in now during homeroom to work on coding with their zyBooks.”

As a teacher, Hankes’ favorite zyBook feature is the Instructor Dashboard: “It’s a very handy tool to assess students at risk. When I saw kids were behind based on participation data, I would bring them in for extra one-on-one time with me.”

Hankes anticipates the Java course to continue to grow and for the school to offer more and more programming classes in the near future. “What we’d like to see is more reaching out to kids who would not normally see themselves in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields,” she says. “There is so much potential there.”