Reinventing class participation
Since 2001, Daisy Fan has been one of the friendly faces greeting incoming students in CIS and the Department of Computer Science. Wending her way to Ithaca via Hong Kong and Manitoba, Canada, Fan's theoretical work focused on problems of resource optimization specifically, in managing water resources, such as finding ways to maximize the benefits of hydroelectric power on a river, given the constraints of climate, water quality, and multiple users such as fish farmers. Lately, however, Fan has focused most of her energy on optimizing computer science education at Cornell, both as an instructor and with her ongoing research on the science of teaching science.
Fan recently earned a Faculty Innovation Grant to test a Personal Response System in her upcoming Computer Science 100 class. The system is basically a set of response keypads distributed to students during lectures, each of which communicates by radio with a computer on the instructor's desk. When a professor asks a question during class, says Fan, “typically you would have the same ten people raising their hands to respond. The idea here is to really try to get class participation, to get them all involved (using the radio keypads).”
Fan suspects that the anonymity of responding with these “game show-like” devices will help some students overcome their shyness in answering questions before a large class; she also hopes that wider participation will foster communication between students, as students “talk to their neighbors, trying to figure out the answer, and then register their vote.” The system's immediate feedback on student comprehension is another potential advantage.
One of her most rewarding jobs outside the classroom is her role in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a contest that pits more than 1,000 teams from 30 countries against each other to design robots to do practical tasks. The high schoolers in each team are advised by mentors from local colleges and companies—in the case of Ithaca High School, by Fan's crack team of Cornell undergraduates. The collaboration has already paid off with IHS's Regional First Place finish in 2004. Fan also helps students advise competitors in the FIRST Lego League —a junior spinoff of the high school competition meant, she says “for the younger sisters and brothers of the high school kids, who want to go to competitions too.”
The aim of both contests is to use the challenges of real-world problems to spark interest in engineering and technology among young people.
“Last year, the Lego League had a Mars theme, where they had to build a (Lego) robot that would do things like the real Mars rovers did.”
In competition and in the classroom, Fan is hard at work on a problem as complex as managing a river, and probably even more consequential—optimizing tomorrow's leaders.