Montana State University

MSU professor to try new teaching method in Germany

May 31, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


MSU computer science professor John Paxton was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award for a year of teaching at the University of Leipzig in eastern Germany.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman - A MSU professor plans to use the computer science classrooms of a nearly 600-year-old German university as a testing ground for a new method of teaching computer science.

John Paxton hopes his experiment in teaching a sophomore-level course on data structures and algorithms in Germany will be successful enough to transplant to MSU. The computer science professor will spend the 2006-2007 academic year at the University of Leipzig after winning a prestigious Fulbright Scholar Award.

Data structures are ways of storing information, and algorithms are instructions for what a computer does with the information. Currently, students are taught - both at MSU and Leipzig - which data structures and algorithms will solve what kinds of problems.

"Data structures and algorithms are fundamental to computer science," Paxton said. "The traditional way of teaching this topic takes the excitement and challenge out of the material. Students see solutions to problems, but with no context as to how nifty these solutions are."

In Leipzig, Paxton plans to give students problems from programming competitions. He's seen such challenges spark students during his 16 years as an MSU advisor for the Association for Computing Machinery. The ACM has annual programming competitions in which teams of three students are given five hours to solve eight problems on one computer.

"Students get very excited during the competitions. They come back very motivated to learn more computer science because the competition points out what knowledge they're missing," Paxton said.

Using competition problems will also give the students a taste of the working world.

"The boss doesn't say 'Use technique X to solve problem Y,' Paxton said. "The boss says 'Solve problem Y.'

If the response from students is positive, Paxton hopes to use all or part of the course on his MSU students when he returns from Germany.

At Leipzig, he will also teach a junior-level Web programming course. Both courses will be taught in English, which is the near universal language of the computer world, Paxton said.

For much of their history, German universities only admitted small numbers of the most promising students. Students were expected to study independently and with little faculty interaction and then demonstrate their mastery of a subject through a final exam, Paxton said.

German universities are now admitting larger numbers of students and there is an interest in other teaching models such as the American model, which involves more faculty-student interaction and supervised laboratories, Paxton said.

For Paxton, the Fulbright will accomplish a long-held wish of combining his college minor in German with his Ph.D. in computer science. Though it's been a while since Paxton, 43, has intensively used his German, he's brushing up this summer.

"I can carry on a simple conversation," Paxton said, "with a bad American accent."

Contact: John Paxton at (406) 994-5979 or paxton@cs.montana.edu