My teaching philosophy is to blend theory and practice together through a series of group problem-solving projects. Through this approach, I have seen students who would ordinarily have little interest in material become very excited and engaged in the process. The theory helps to ground the student to the material while the practice reinforces learning by allowing the student to see how theory can be used. By placing the theory and practice into a group-problem solving approach, it provides students with a support system where they are more comfortable in taking risk, thinking outside of conventional means and arriving at interesting solutions they would normally not arrive at on their own.
For example, in an undergraduate Internet Applications course, I had the students form two groups of approximately six students each and gave each group an iRobot Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. Their goal was to take this vacuum and adapt it to perform remote surveillance of a premises, meaning that a user can control the robot’s movement through the Internet and receive live video feedback, and to do all this for under $200. This was not a trivial assignment for the students as setting up customized miniature webservers and controlling the roomba’s movement wirelessly through them was relatively a new area at the time. Throughout the course of the semester I taught the students the relevant theory concerning networking protocols, topologies and java programming, however, it was ultimately up to the students to conduct the practice by evaluating ideas, implementing and testing them out. Along the way, both groups had numerous setbacks, however, through the process they learned how to conduct research, programming, robotics, hardware modifications, problem-solving and much more. I am proud to say that both groups succeeded in the project and gave presentations to the rest of the college on their solutions. One group even decided to write an article about the process for MAKE magazine which was published July 2011 in volume 27 and was even featured on the magazine’s front cover (http://makezine.com/27/). The students involved in this project have told me that this was one of the most rewarding experiences they have ever had and I am quite proud of them.
In my other classes I also try to create group assignments to balance theory and practice. Generally, these types of group assignments require students to use material from the entire semester and provide their solution to a proposed problem. In my sophomore level Business Information Systems class, which all business majors are required to take, assignments of this nature will require students to think about the hardware, software and networking choices as well as the proposed costs and system compatibility. These assignments are made more interesting to the students by positioning them within a context that they enjoy. The most popular of which has been the assignment where students pick a professional sports team, build a technology infrastructure from the ground up and present their results to the class for discussion.
Aside from turning otherwise dry theory into something fun and engaging, I feel that giving students assignments that use a group problem solving approach gives those students an edge in the job market, because it demonstrates teamwork and the ability to solve difficult tasks.
Besides these accomplishments, students always seem to view me a friend. Although I don’t specifically cultivate this in students, I do take the time to sit and listen to what my students are saying and help them in any way that I can. Recently I had a student come to my office whom said that despite all my accomplishments, awards, etc. she felt comfortable in talking with me unlike other professors which she found to be intimidating. I’ve been called one of the nicest professors and students always seem to flock to my classes. It always warms me to think about that.