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University Students Design Custom Software for Local Schools

Technology in the Classroom CenterStudents enrolled in a computer software seminar at Brown University design and develop custom software for classes in Providence (Rhode Island) schools. Could your local university do the same for you? Included: Students and teachers talk about the software created for them plus links to custom software teachers can download and use today!

Are you a teacher who has trouble finding just the right software to meet your students' needs? Are you a principal who can't afford all the specialized software your teachers want? Are you a superintendent looking for technology solutions for your students, teachers, and principals? You may not need to look any further than the nearest college or university!

Custom software has long been right at the doorstep for educators in Providence, Rhode Island. Since 1990, students at Brown University, an Ivy League college in Providence, have designed and developed educational software for students in local public and private schools and institutions. In the educational software seminar Computer Science 92 (CS92), Brown students not only study educational theory and the development of classroom technology but also combine principles and practices in the design of usable educational software programs. What makes the experience unique is that the Brown students work with actual clients -- students and teachers in the area -- to design programs that meet the needs of specific classes.


CS92 Project Pages 2000

The following are among the most recent K-12 programs developed by Brown University students.

* Buzz!!! teaches area and perimeter to kindergarten ESL students.

* Mad Math Minute provides timed practice in basic math skills for third graders.

* Math Bug teaches geometry to fourth graders.

* A Night Out provides drug education and decision-making practice for ninth graders.

* Sadina's Revenge teaches grammar to students in high school ESL and special education programs and to students with learning disabilities.

"CS92 consists of project work -- working in teams with local teachers who have requested particular pieces of classroom software -- and seminar work. [Students] read and discuss texts and issues in a variety of relevant subject areas, from the philosophy of education to human-computer interaction," according to Roger Blumberg, the Brown University lecturer who currently teaches CS92. "The project work, together with the readings and discussions, teaches our students a great deal about both the ideals and realities of education.

"Different students seem attracted to different experiences in the seminar," Blumberg said. "Many learn a great deal about educational theory and practice, classroom dynamics, and the aims of education. Many computer science students, previously used to merely technical courses, are stimulated by encountering philosophical and historical texts for the first time. Other students like the 'making' of the program, creating contents and behaviors for software that engages students."

There are no prerequisites for CS92, either in education or in computer programming, Blumberg added. Students are expected to understand what it means to program a computer or to be willing to learn quickly.

"The seminar tries (desperately!)," Blumberg told Education World, "to bridge what is considered by many to be the latest 'two cultures' problem: the gap between technologists and non-technologists."


Although the university offers the seminar in the spring semester, preparations actually begin in September. Blumberg begins contacting local schools, institutions such as the children's museum and children's hospital, and other Brown faculty members to solicit proposals for classroom and course-related software. The only requirement for participating schools or institutions is that they be local enough that the Brown students can visit frequently. After collecting information and talking with interested educators, Blumberg writes up the requests in a format he thinks will inform and engage his students.

"Interestingly, we have no trouble getting proposals from schools in which we've previously worked," Blumberg noted, "but getting the word out to schools that don't know our work or think they're not eligible is difficult."


After Blumberg receives all the proposals, the Brown students choose the projects they wish to work on and form teams. In consultation with the sponsoring teacher, his or her students, and other members of the seminar, the students carry out the design and production work.

In creating the programs, the students follow a typical design process, which includes a revised project description, a storyboard, prototypes, testing, and final implementation. Storyboard formats vary from project to project; some teams use Microsoft's PowerPoint; others use poster board! The most popular tools for developing the programs themselves, according to Blumberg, are Macromedia's Director and Sun Microsystem's Java.

The entire project takes about 90 days from the time students choose their projects from the proposal pool to the final installation of the finished program at the sponsor's site. "The number of hours the students spend on their projects varies enormously but is always significant," Blumberg said.


"One of the requirements of the projects," Blumberg told Education World, "is that they be interesting in some way. Whether as an innovative response to the challenges of a content area or as a particular strategy for working with a specific group of students, each program needs to distinguish itself by offering thoughtful approaches both to the goals set out by the teachers in their proposals and to the realities of the classrooms in which the programs will be used.

"Technically, the most difficult projects," Blumberg said, "are those that involve the use of a server to update and communicate between local users. Most K-12 classroom or lab environments cannot support networked database-dependent programs, and university faculty members rarely know the technology well enough to take over and maintain networked database-dependent programs themselves.

"Pedagogically, the most difficult projects are those that must address large groups of students who have widely varying language skills. Getting the language right is difficult, not merely from a literacy point of view but in trying to figure out what sorts of language will be most engaging and pedagogically effective. Each year, we wrestle with this and try to use visual information in interesting ways, but it is an area of ongoing experimentation and hot debate," Blumberg added.


One of the most ambitious of the latest group of software projects might have been Sadina's Revenge, a program created for students with learning disabilities.

"Sadina's Revenge is a game designed to teach grammar to students who have special needs," said Matt Howard, a Brown student and one of the program's creators. "As the programmer, I implemented most of the game mechanics in Macromedia's Shockwave. Other members of the team served as artists, designers, and storyboarders.

"By far, the most rewarding aspect of the project was getting to work and interact with a diverse group of people who each brought something different to the project," Howard told Education World. "I've worked on several other large computer projects, but in those cases, all the team members were male and mostly skilled in the technical side of computing. In this project, I worked with a mix of people (of both genders!) from artistic, technical, and humanities backgrounds. Our discussions about the project and about aspects of our lives outside the project was really fulfilling. It was nice to be part of a project where I was engaged not just as a 'coder' but also as a contributor, a valuable member of a diverse team.

"Definitely the most difficult part of the project," Howard noted, "was the time it demanded. We ended up, not entirely by conscious decision, with a project that was basically too big, and that demanded horribly long hours. By the time Sadina was done, I was sleeping little and sick of working on it. However, I would definitely do it again if I had to.

"After seeing Sadina's concept work," Howard added, "it seemed like such a simple and obvious solution to making grammar more interesting than it is in workbooks. Although I haven't become a proponent of the completely electronic classroom, it's easy to come up with computer programs that could make school curricula more interesting and more experiential. I think part of the reason educational software has been traditionally unsuccessful is because the technology isn't powerful enough yet. I wouldn't be surprised to see a second wave of educational software programs as computers get better at simulating experiences.

"CS92 was definitely challenging, frustrating and, ultimately, rewarding," agreed Ruiyan Xu, another member of the Sadina's Revenge team. "Our expectations were high from the start -- in retrospect, perhaps a little too high. We didn't know what we were getting into! The hardest part, as with any collaborative work, was working together and communicating effectively.

"The most rewarding part of the project, of course, was actually seeing the finished product in the hands of the student users," Xu told Education World. "After countless hours of work, self-imposed exile from friends, and neglect of other academic work, I was pretty miserable, but seeing the kids play the game and getting excited about it was more amazing than I could have imagined."


"Specialized software for my students is often expensive, hard to find, and impossible to preview," explained Diane Cresto, the high school English teacher who worked with the Brown students to create Sadina's Revenge. "Often, when you do finally get software you think is appropriate for the skills you're teaching, it turns out that the interest level is too low to engage the students.

"That's why this program is so exciting," said Cresto, who teaches 11th and 12th grade learning-disabled students at Mount Pleasant High School, in Providence. "I simply gave the Brown students samples of what I do in class and explained what I wanted. They went with it, incorporating what they thought was important with what I needed and what my students told them they wanted.

"The nice thing," Cresto told Education World, "was that the project helped my students recognize that there are exciting possibilities in education beyond high school and that people other than their teachers are interested in their education. Because the Brown students were so genuinely interested in the students here, and in their opinions, my kids truly felt as though they were an integral part of the project.

"It was great to see how much my students enjoyed it," Cresto added, "It was also professionally satisfying to see the Brown students being offered such a worthwhile hands-on course."


Everyone benefits from the Brown educational software seminar -- from the K-12 students, their teachers, and their schools to the college students, their instructors, and their future employers. Right about now, you may be wondering how you can set up a similar arrangement with a college or university in your area.

"Teachers should get in touch with a local college or university that has a computer science department and a multimedia lab and suggest a course like CS92 to them," Blumberg told Education World. "They could point the college or university folks in the direction of our Educational Software Seminar Web site and explain that this type of program is as useful a form of university-school collaboration as any training model. A seminar such as CS92, which begins with teachers' interests rather than imposing interests on teachers, could be offered as joint efforts between computer science departments and any number of other university departments, including education, visual arts, cultural studies, and so on.

"It's not magic or the uniqueness of Brown students that makes this sort of thing possible," Blumberg said. "As more and more colleges and universities add multimedia labs to their facilities and modern media courses to their curricula, the educational software seminar model really could be replicated widely and with tremendously interesting variations. It's one of the remarkable achievements of multimedia computing that authoring tools are versatile and powerful enough to allow talented students to create the programs they do."

Editor's Note: Educational Software from CS92 developed since 1992 is available for download.

Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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Updated 9/25/2003