Constructing Concepts in Computer Science

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As is often said about math, CCSU Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair Dr. Stan Kurkovsky knows that computer science is not a spectator sport. Having a home computer and trying to have fun originally sparked Stan Kurkovsky’s interest, and is why he originally pursued an undergraduate degree in computer science. “I had a number of part-time jobs as a software developer and software engineer while still in college,” he says. “I worked for about a year full-time after graduating, and then came to the US to get a second master’s degree. Originally, I wasn’t planning on getting a PhD, but I guess I was having too much fun in grad school and decided to stay for a little longer, and so there I was with a PhD.”

The allure of pursuing his research interests and having the freedom to experiment with new concepts kept Dr. Kurkovsky from the appealing salary of a software consultant during the dot-com boom. “There were lots and lots of opportunities in start-ups and big tech companies with of course very appealing pay, but I valued my freedom and flexibility and ability to interact with students more, so that’s why I ended up in higher education.”

While attending a conference, Dr. Kurkovsky heard about the concept of LEGO Serious Play (LSP) from a colleague. “He talked about using LEGOs to teach computer science, and at the time people were very familiar with LEGO Mindstorms, which is a very friendly and popular tool for robotics and is very good for attracting high school students to engineering and computing,” says Dr. Kurkovsky. “But this wasn’t LEGO Mindstorms, he was talking about using good old LEGOs. So I heard about this but quite frankly, after the conference, I forgot about it.” A month or two later, Dr. Kurkovsky came across an online source also mentioning LEGO Serious Play, and it piqued his interest. So, he began to try to figure out the teaching value of playing with LEGOs.

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Students solidifying conceptual understanding with LEGOs.

According to Dr. Kurkovsky, LSP by itself has nothing to do with computer science at all—it’s a methodology for brainstorming, team building, and creative decision-making. That’s how it was originally developed. “There’s only so much you can find out through websites and articles written by LSP practitioners, so I started looking for more in-depth information,” he says. “Robert Rasmussen, who was one of the senior directors in LEGO education for a number of years, became what I think would be best described as the main architect of LSP. LSP was originally developed as a strategy development methodology for senior level managers and executives to brainstorm different ideas. Rasmussen put all this theory into a hands-on format, and he and another partner of his were conducting training exercises all across the world.”

Dr. Kurkovsky received funding through an internal AAUP grant for curriculum development, because even though he didn’t understand all of the lower-level applications at that moment, he saw the potential in how LSP could be used in higher education. “Through the grant, I attended the training event, which was truly an eye-opening experience,” says Dr. Kurkovsky. “It was a four-day event, and for 8-9 hours each you essentially played with LEGOs—but you’re not just playing for the sake of playing, you’re learning how the methodology works.

“It’s difficult to explain how it works… it’s so much easier going through a few small exercises, trying to build things, and talking about them. After all it’s not really about LEGOs—instead of LEGOs, we could be using Play-Doh or one of those erector sets with little metal pieces and screwdrivers and nuts and bolts,” he says. “It’s about representing your ideas through a small model”—similar to how if you played with LEGOs as a small child, it would have no bearing on your proficiency in building. LSP is about channeling your ideas through a small model and explaining what it means to you or your team and how it represents that. One of the ways LEGOs help students is giving them a means to brainstorm complex topics.

“Say there’s a lecture on a particular topic,” says Dr. Kurkovsky. “Students can only learn so much through lectures or through reading a textbook. So, computer science and software engineering in particular are complex in a way that you best learn by applying the theory in a hands-on context. Software engineering is an area that deals with projects of a substantial size—it’s not as though you can give a student a small project and say, ‘finish this piece of the program,’ and have them develop a new understanding of a concept. Software engineering is about teamwork and projects on a substantial scale. So, you can give students a course project, which would last a month or two, and as an outcome they would master a certain concept.”

But what if you wanted to give students a taste for a particular element you were discussing in lectures, but you wanted to do it in one class and still give them a hands-on experience? “LEGOs, in this way, replace software; instead of having students construct their software on computers, they can build a metaphorical stand-in for the particular element with LEGOs,” says Dr. Kurkovsky.

Constructing Concepts in Computer ScienceSolidifying Concepts with Legos

It’s not so much about explaining a particular concept through LEGOs. Instead, once you explain a topic or an element of a topic through your lectures or seminars, the next thing you can do to help students solidify their knowledge is to give them hands-on exercises with LEGOs.

“In fall of 2014, I did a formal study where I split a class into two groups. The full class got all the same lectures and assignments, but one group completed exercises with LEGOs, while the others didn’t,” he says. There were about eight of these exercises over the course of the semester, and for each one of them, students had to complete a graded rubric to determine how well they’ve mastered the respective concepts. The test and control groups interchanged, so that one week Group A would be working with LEGOs, and the next week Group B would be playing with LEGOs, and the rubrics were graded blindly so that there would be no bias or indication as to whether a student was in a LEGO group or not. “After tallying up the results and running statistical analysis based on the results, there was a noticeable improvement in the learning outcomes for the students who used the LEGOs,” says Dr. Kurkovsky. “The bottom line is that they were able to master the material more effectively than the students who didn’t use LEGOs.”

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