Introducing Computer Programming in Political Science Classes

Today’s post is a guest posting from Jane Lawrence Sumner of the University of Minnesota. Jane’s research and teaching interests are in international political economy and research methods.

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Undergraduate methods classes frequently use statistical software programs, despite students typically have little background knowledge in programming. While we seldom ask students to do anything that would require that background knowledge, the idea of having to program can be a roadblock for many students. In an attempt to alleviate this, I designed an activity to introduce my students to the fundamentals of programming in a non-technical way. The objectives of the course were for students to understand that programming primarily involves providing the computer with very good, very specific instructions to carry out the task at hand.

Students were split into small groups, and each group was given a piece of paper with a hand-drawn cartoon on it. They were told to write instructions about how to reproduce the drawing that they could then give to another student. After twenty minutes, they stopped. Each group stood with their backs to the whiteboard while they read their instructions to a student from another group, positioned at the whiteboard with a marker. Students were not allowed to modify their instructions and were deliberately unable to see the student with the marker so that they could not course-correct. The student with the marker was allowed to ask only one question: “can you please repeat that?”

Only one of the drawings actually resembled the original. Although the students enjoyed drawing and seeing the monstrosities emerging on the board, and loved the great reveal at the end of what the drawing should have looked like, the key pedagogical point came in the discussion at the end, when I asked students, “What made this difficult? What would have made it easier?” The points that emerged organically were the same objectives I’d set out to convey. Specifically: many, short, precise steps were easier to follow well than longer, more detailed steps. Students also determined that having a clear and constant reference point (like a coordinate system) would have made the direction and scale easier, that naming parts of the drawing for later reference was easier than repeating “the curvy line that ended up at the first straight line” over and over, and that if each step relied upon the subsequent step, things could quickly go awry.

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