Programming with POGIL

Clif Kussmaul, an associate professor of computer science at Muhlenberg College, remembers his first POGIL workshop with crystal clarity. He’d been searching for a way to engage students in his large introductory courses, and a colleague from the chemistry department suggested he give POGIL a try.

“For me, the a-ha moment was when I started to think about questions I could ask my students to help them understand concepts they struggle with,” says Kussmaul, who teaches introductory computer science and software engineering.

“Within 30 minutes of writing a few questions, I realized POGIL was going to make students think differently.”

From then on, he was hooked. The POGIL method gave Kussmaul a pedagogical framework for a teaching style he’d started to develop on his own — and opportunities to help teachers half-way across the world impact their students.

In 2009, Kussmaul won a Fulbright Grant to India, where he delivered POGIL workshops to newly minted computer science graduate students. He still returns regularly to present his work and train India’s growing population of educators.

“In the U.S. almost all college faculty are research experts in their discipline — even though very few of them know how to be good teachers,” he explains. “In India, the demand for education is growing so quickly that many college teachers have, at best, a bachelor’s degree.”

Together with a colleague who won a grant from the Indian government, Kussmaul used POGIL to train these new teachers in both pedagogy and the content they’d need on the job. When Kussmaul isn’t busy flying to India to give workshop presentations, he also spearheads a National Science Foundation grant designed to help students learn open-source software design using POGIL.

“Our hope is that by getting students involved in these projects, they’ll understand computer science concepts better, and they’ll also develop collaboration skills,” he says — all the real-world skills a computer science major needs to find a good job.

The itch to keep improving his teaching — and help others become better teachers, too — drives Kussmaul’s approach to writing POGIL activities. As a computer scientist, he’s interested in how systems work and how they can be categorized. He’s even started applying the way he thinks about computer science to the POGIL method itself.

“In the last year, I started trying to write pattern descriptions of elements of POGIL,” he says. “If you look at POGIL activities, you’ll see lots of examples with tables of data or graphs of data, and the kinds of questions you ask about a table or a graph are similar from one activity to another.”

Kussmaul wants to give someone who’s new to writing a POGIL activity a catalog of patterns they can draw from.

“The hope is it will be easier for people in different disciplines to talk to each other about writing,” he says. “If there are ideas in computer science that we can bring back to the larger community, that helps everyone.”

Programming with POGIL

“Within 30 minutes of writing a few questions, I realized POGIL was going to make students think differently.” -Clif Kussmaul, an associate professor of Computer Science at Muhlenberg College