An introduction to numerical computing for undergraduates

Awardees: Adam Cohen and Christopher Stubbs (FAS)

Summary: Awardees developed a two-week module on basic computational methods in MATLAB, lowering the barrier to use for students in courses from biology to economics.

Based on the hurdles observed facing their students in gaining proficiency in writing, debugging, and running programs in MATLAB, Professors Adam Cohen and Christopher Stubbs developed a two-week module on basic computational methods. These evening “boot camp” sessions, plus a suite of online participatory learning modules, benefited students across a wide range of classes and concentrations from the physical sciences and engineering to economics to the life sciences, and lowered barriers for faculty who wish to include computational work in their teaching and homework assignments. The team surveyed interest in this course before its launch among their colleagues in CCB, Physics, Astronomy, SEAS, MCB, OEB, Applied Math, Statistics, and Economics and identified over 10 courses with interest in participating.

Approximately 900 students in total (90% undergraduate students, 10% graduate students) have attended the MATLAB boot camp sessions or watched them online since the 2014 fall launch, and they were from more than 40 courses per academic year. Students’ motivation to enroll includes an interest in taking courses that uses MATLAB for learning, conducting research, crafting thesis work, developing skills in data analysis, and general future life skills. Faculty observed improvements in their students’ course work and some have requested that the module be offered more frequently to accommodate even more students. Responding to the demand, the team plans to extend the program college-wide, reaching both the humanities and social sciences (beyond Economics, which is already reached).

Each boot camp lesson is taught at the beginning of every semester by a rotating group of instructors, and the team crafted “teaching package” organized so that the instructor knows what was covered previously, cutting down on the preparation required for their assigned topics, tested and revised over the course of the first offering based on feedback. It is still a challenge to control for instruction quality from lesson to lesson, but faculty reported improvement in their students’ MATLAB proficiency as a result of the boot camp, and some have offered additional credit to students who complete the module.