UI professor builds new computer science project, seeks students to aid in development

Geoffrey Challen, associate professor in engineering, poses for a photo at his computer in the Siebel Center for Computer Science. Challen is seeking for students to help him with his new project which peers can add and learn valuable information from.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois I-STEM Education Initiative

Geoffrey Challen, associate professor in engineering, poses for a photo at his computer in the Siebel Center for Computer Science. Challen is seeking for students to help him with his new project which peers can add and learn valuable information from.

By Lilli Bresnahan, Staff Writer

Geoffrey Challen, teaching associate professor in engineering, created a course website as a resource for students learning how to code. Now, he leads a new project where students are creating a communal website in which they can add and learn from valuable information. 

The CS 124: Introduction to Computer Science I website underwent big changes during the pandemic to support students in online learning.

(Some of the changes include) the new daily lesson format, containing the interactive walk-throughs, new homework problems that were completed through the website, a new quiz system and a new online help site where students can ask questions and get assistance from staff with their code,” Challen said. 

The initial form of this website was part of CS 125: Introduction to Computer Science in fall 2020. Challen has been maintaining the website since fall 2017. In the spring, he built the first version of the online help site, and in the summer, he finalized the vision for that website. 

CS 124 was part of a broader curriculum revision he helped enact and went into effect in the fall. As part of this change, CS 125 dropped from four to three credit hours, and CS 128: Introduction to Computer Science II was introduced, which is being taught for the first time this semester. 

Colleen Lewis, CS 124 co-instructor, has added 305 contributions to this website this semester. Contributions vary from adding a lesson walk-through, solution walk-through or a lesson video.

“Colleen has been more involved as an instructor,” Challen said. “And so she’s really taking on the role of generating more and more content.”

The CS 124 website is a clear structure for students to use and learn at their own pace. 

“It also shows the truth behind this where Geoff and I will be writing code in our recording and these recorded walk-throughs, and we’ll make mistakes and we’ll be confused,” Lewis said. “And so it naturally includes more real-time debugging… I think it is humanizing and it’s honest.”

This interactive website allows students to hear voices and explanations from multiple perspectives. 

“I’m conscious of, as a white male in computer science, that my voice frequently has been somewhat overrepresented within computing history,” Challen said. “I think to help broaden the appeal of computing and computer science, it’s useful to be able to diversify the voice with which the course speaks.”

Now, Challen has decided to begin a new project where he is forming a group of students to create a website where students can take initiative to progress the website.

The project involves creating a YouTube channel to then create a website, which is done through embedding. Challen said that to embed is taking an embedding code from what is uploaded to YouTube. The embedding code is a small piece of HTML that you can stick onto your website. 

HTML is a description that indicates how a specific site should look. 

“I think it’s really helpful for students to learn from other students or sort of people who are closer in their level of knowledge,” Lewis said. “There’s something called expert blind spots, because I know the content so well, it’s really hard for me to understand where students will get stuck.”

“We’re trying to get to the point where we have a site where somebody can record one of these demos and embed it onto their course website,” Challen said. 

Being a part of this project will give students the opportunity to build something others can use. Challen believes the students in the computer science program don’t have much practice with interface design and building something that actual people use. This is an opportunity to do web design and web development. 

“They’ll be working with this huge and complex code base with mentorship from faculty members, and I think that’s a good learning opportunity that you might not get unless it’s more like interning,” Lewis said.

Overtime, Challen hopes to build a course that creates the best way of explaining the concepts from a large community of people. 

“The YouTube is a fun twist on it, but I think what’s underlying all of this is a fundamental transformation on how we think courses work,” Challen said. “What it means to teach a class.” 

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