The 100 students enrolled in “IN4MATX 148: Project in Ubiquitous Computing” last quarter might not have realized it, but they got a free course upgrade. The learning objectives and range of topics remained the same from years past, as did the emphasis on the ecological and social impacts of the internet of things (IoT), but the winter 2019 offering featured two significant differences from prior courses. “We had access to the Anteater Learning Pavilion, which was transformative,” explains Associate Professor in Informatics and Education Kylie Peppler, who taught the course, “and we purchased hands-on materials through the Informatics department.”
Leveraging Active Learning Spaces
IN4MATX 148 introduces ubiquitous computing research methods, tools and techniques, covering a range of topics, from basic circuitry concepts to LED construction, color theory, robotics and hardware issues. “There’s only so much you can learn about these things from hearing a lecture,” says Peppler. Consequently, she welcomed the opening of UCI’s Anteater Learning Pavilion (ALP) in September 2018.
As the first building in California devoted entirely to active learning, the ALP is more than just a state-of-the-art facility. “I had to go through the certification classes to have access to that classroom,” says Peppler. “There’s a huge demand for that space.” Instructors who complete the 16-week certification program, developed to help faculty redesign their courses to fully leverage the space, receive priority access.
According to Judi Franz, who acts as the classroom technology liaison for the Office of Information and Technology, “the new spaces in the Anteater Learning Pavilion are designed to support evidence-based active learning practices, with resources as basic as whiteboards and rolling chairs, and as advanced as wireless projection with matrix switching to share content from and to all students and the instructor.”
Both the classroom set-up and equipment made a huge difference for IN4MATX 148. “We were in the small-group space with six students around the tables, and that’s based on their research for the optimal group size,” notes Peppler, adding that the available classroom technology made it easy to “design a course that is engaging for a range of students.” She could move around the room while talking with a wireless mic and could easily access and share student content, facilitating group discussions. More importantly, the students had plenty of space to work and collaborate.
“Each group had a whiteboard and TV,” says Mayara Costa Figueiredo, an Informatics Ph.D. candidate who served as the teaching assistant for the course. “I don’t see the class being done in any other environment.”
Furthermore, the ALP environment made the class accessible to a wide range of students. “I could make sure English language learners had subcaptions on the videos, and I could make sure everyone could hear,” says Peppler. “There was also space for students to move around,” she said, noting that one student was in a wheelchair at the start of the quarter. “In order to be inclusive and accessible, those kinds of spaces become really important.”
Practicing Hands-On Creativity
The novel, high-tech design of the ALP created a unique space for experimenting with IoT technology, but fully realizing the ALP’s potential required additional resources. “What made the course particularly different was the creative use of materials,” says André van der Hoek, chair of the Department of Informatics.
Peppler was very appreciative of the department for funding the purchase of those materials. “We really wanted to level the playing field here and give every student access to the technology, so part of what was important was having one device per student.” After conducting a thorough review of the kit field, she selected the SparkFun IoT Starter Kit with Blynk Board, which includes a digital dashboard as well as other items such as a moisture sensor, LEDs, jumper wires, and resistors. The kit doesn’t require programming knowledge, which was beneficial, given that IN4MATX 148 is one of the few project courses without prerequisites.
“The department was happy to invest in these kits to be able to give the student hands-on exercises that challenged their conventional thinking with regard to computing,” says van der Hoek. “The resulting creativity and enthusiasm was an absolute joy from a department chair’s perspective, a virtual guarantee that learning happened, and in spades!”
Students used the kits to conduct 20 different lab experiments, building everything from e-textiles to moisture-sensing apps for plants. For the final exam, the students designed their own IoT device, listing all of the parts required and analyzing the device across the core themes of the course, including security and sustainability.
Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many students referring to the class as extremely “hands-on” and “fun,” with material that was “very engaging.” Others will have the opportunity to enroll in the course with Peppler teaching it again in winter 2020. She says it will be “much of the same but I’m hoping we can go deeper.”
Peppler admits that with active learning, challenges come with the territory. “There’s more uncertainty — you don’t know when you’re going to encounter a problem with the Blynk Board or have a firmware issue — but the level of participation and engagement was super high.” Furthermore, she says she simply integrated any uncertainty into the learning process. “Everybody experienced together what it means to solve real-world issues around physical computing and ubiquitous computing devices.”
With the hands-on labs and tackling of real-world issues, IN4MATX 148 clearly exemplifies the benefits of active learning. “I would encourage more faculty to enroll in the Active Learning Institute and to think about some of those methodologies for larger scale classes,” says Peppler. “I’m hoping we’ll see additional investments on campus to create more spaces like the ALP.”
— Shani Murray