How Programming Professor Dennis Sigur Effectively Uses Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning offers an authentic and meaningful way to engage students. To learn more about this innovative teaching approach, we connected with Dr. Dennis Sigur, Computer Science Instructor at Dillard University in New Orleans, who uses project-based learning in his database course.

“You can see a light bulb go off in [a student’s] head,” says Dr. Sigur. “Project-based learning takes what they learn in the book and brings it to reality. It’s a great opportunity for students to develop, and I always get great reviews after this class because students are so excited.”

What can students learn from project-based learning?

  1. Critical thinking and creativity
  2. Communication skills
  3. Problem solving
  4. Time management
  5. Decision making

1. Critical thinking and creativity

With project-based learning, students learn to define challenges, questions, and requirements, and develop unique solutions. Dr. Sigur consistently sees his students’ understanding and comprehension improve throughout the course project.

2. Communication skills

Dr. Sigur helps his students practice professional communication by encouraging them to reach out to business leaders with questions related to their class projects. This can be particularly impactful for students from younger generations who grew up in a world dominated by texting and social media.

3. Problem solving

To teach students to solve real-world problems, Dr. Sigur uses a combination of realistic course projects and zyBooks, an interactive textbook replacement packed with engaging animations and exercises inspired by real life. “That’s what I love about the zyBook,” says Dr. Sigur. “It forces my students to read and go through these real-world problems to get a better understanding.”

4. Time management

As professors know all too well, students often wait until the last minute to begin an assignment. Project-based learning forces students to evaluate the multiple steps required to practice planning ahead and complete their project in advance.

5. Decision making

In Dr. Sigur’s project-based course, students select the technology and tools for their projects on their own. Going through this process helps students overcome decision paralysis caused by wanting to be perfect. As Dr. Sigur says, “It’s never perfect in real life.”

When to use project-based learning

While project-based learning can create a sense of authenticity in many computer science courses, there are some subjects that pair better with this method than others. Coding or development classes, for example, will likely reap more of the benefits of project-based learning than a course focused on theory or concept.

Tip: If choosing to use project-based learning for a first-year class, be sure to keep the project simple, as some students may not have coding experience.

How to use project-based learning in your computer science class

Select real-life resources and tools

To create a true real-world experience for your students, select resources students will likely encounter in their future careers. For Dr. Sigur’s database course, this included a MySQL Database, Server, and Google Cloud, as well as SQL Workbench or DBeaver. Students will enjoy learning how to use the new resources and learn a compelling story to tell in job interviews.

Create a curated project list

Provide a list of projects with more ideas than students and allow them to pitch their own. Students can choose projects relevant to their own interests or jobs, which can boost engagement. For his database project, Professor Sigur provides options ranging from inventory control management or student record-keeping systems to railway systems or hotel management.

Provide clear instructions

The first time Dr. Sigur tried project-based learning, he learned quite a few lessons himself. He gave his students basic instructions and waited until the project submission date to review. The result was low-quality projects made up of undetailed data dictionaries, insufficient data in tables, and poorly designed entity-relationship diagrams. How did he turn it around?

Dr. Sigur improved the project instructions by making the following changes:

  • Splitting the project into parts and adjusting grading weights to indicate the importance of each part.
  • Setting review dates. While the entire project is due at the end of the semester, Dr. Sigur sets review dates for each part of the project to ensure students are on track.
  • Assigning related zyBooks sections and activities in parallel to their work on the project.

Want to learn more?

Watch Dr. Dennis Sigur’s Project-Based Learning Webinar.


Dennis SigurAbout Dr. Dennis Sigur

Dr. Dennis Sigur is an instructor of computer science at Dillard University. He has provided functional and technical support in the evaluation, analysis, development, enhancement, and maintenance of processes and major software systems. He currently teaches courses in computer science and management information systems, and provides tutoring and academic counseling to students, maintains class-related records, and assesses student coursework. He collaborates with and supports colleagues in their research interests and co-curricular activities. Dennis has also served as a college of business instructor.

Why Cay Horstmann Thinks Now is a Great Time for Interactive Materials

Computer science higher education has experienced a technical transformation. Innovative tools, such as interactive textbooks and digital course platforms, are helping to drive success for this generation of students. In many ways, it’s a great time for students, authors, and professors. But for higher ed instructors, this transition also brings new teaching challenges. How can university and college educators engage with and inspire their programming students through virtual lectures? We connected with Dr. Cay Horstmann, author and professor of computer science, to discuss teaching in a digital world.

Why Cay Horstmann says now is a great time for interactive materials for students, authors, and professors

For students

A textbook is a tool. Students want to read just what they need, jump around, and come back to specific sections — which keeps them moving through the material while staying motivated. With interactive material, students can instantly assess what they have learned and where they still need to put in work. You don’t have to take our word for it — students are voicing the value of immersive content. Of students responding to the Spring 2021 zyBooks Student Survey, 85% shared that zyBooks’ participation activities, learning questions, auto-graded challenges, and descriptive animations helped them learn.

For authors

In the past, Dr. Horstmann relied solely on the conviction of his words to carry students along. But that worked only if students actually read the material. Now, he can help students by designing activities. Dr. Horstmann includes hundreds of interactive programming activities in the newest version of his award-winning Big Java Late Objects, now available on the zyBooks platform.

For professors

In the past, there were only books. Now, technology, tools, and digital course platforms enable professors to better understand where students are succeeding or struggling. Dr. Horstmann recommends referencing your class’s reading analytics to see whether students found the reading easy or challenging.

Cay Horstmann’s 3 tips for teaching computer science in “the Zoom age”

1.Talk about what excites you

When lecturing for a digital online course, it’s more important than ever to discuss the things that excite you as a computer scientist to inspire and engage your students. For Dr. Horstmann, these are topics like algorithms and design vs syntax.

2. Assign pre-class reading

This is key to focusing on exciting topics in class. When students learn the basics by reviewing the material in advance, they get to dive straight into the engaging, more complex topics in class and improve student engagement during virtual classes.

3. Leverage innovative technology

To ensure your students complete pre-class reading, leverage technology, such as the zyBooks gradebook, which allows you to require participation, track individuals’ successes, and understand overall student engagement. These abilities, ultimately, help you plan your virtual presentations.

Professor Cay HorstmannAbout Dr. Cay Horstmann

Dr. Cay Horstmann received a master’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He taught computer science at San Jose State University for almost 30 years and held visiting appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, Vietnam, and Macau. He also served as a vice president and chief technology officer of a startup company. Dr. Horstmann authors books and develops online courses for beginning and professional programmers.