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Volunteering in her daughter’s classroom one day, Professor Laleh Behjat noticed how enthusiastic the 10-year-olds were when it was time to pick bits of clay, paper, and other materials off the floor. The teacher had turned clean-up time into a game. This experience got Behjat thinking about her own classroom at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary: Could a gamified curriculum aid in the teaching of physical design?
Behjat answered this interesting question during her talk at the first Academic Track hosted by the Cadence Academic Network at CDNLive Silicon Valley in early April. She was intrigued about whether gamification would work with her students because it is based on our desires to socialize and compete and to engage in self-expression.
Floorplanning, she figured, would be a good subject for trying out this method. But after running through a floorplanning game, Behjat quickly realized that one of the main drawbacks was that it was hard to come up with good games. She explained, “I taught myself to be really creative. But there’s a limit to the amount of imagination I have. If a game is too simple, you can get an artificial sense of accomplishment. It’s also a short-term gain because there are so many varieties of games out there.” Plus, she noted, competition is actually not the best thing in a class. Often, the same set of people end up answering all of the questions.
This experience presented another question: While gamification might not be effective for solving complex physical design problems, how could this material be taught in a fun way?
Behjat went back to some basic teaching frameworks and realities, namely that most students learn when they have an opportunity to create and, especially, when they can evaluate and also analyze. So Behjat went back to her floorplanning game, first teaching her students about floorplanning essentials and then introducing games that applied increasing requirements for brainstorming, divergent thinking, and inventiveness.
“What employers today want are inventive and innovative employees,” Behjat said. “I think that, in 10 years, what employers will want are emergent thinkers.”
After some additional experimentation, Behjat found the right gamification approach for teaching seniors how to develop physical design tools for circuits. In the “game of EDA,” students created the games themselves. Their only requirements:
“Gamification works if you give the creative process to the students,” Behjat noted. “You can get them to learn so much more.”
In a separate session at the CDNLive Silicon Valley Academic Track, Professor Sung Kyu Lim from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) talked about four key challenges he has faced in teaching large, graduate-level physical design classes.
Based on stats from Fall 2015, GT had the largest ECE program in the US, with 1,400 undergrads, 1,300 grad students, more than 100 faculty, and $52 million in research funding. Rewind to 2001, when the campus had no physical design classes and Lim started one. Since then, enrollment, after a few years with drop-offs, has climbed steadily, with as many as 78 students during the Spring 2015 semester.
“The biggest challenge is teaching algorithms. I graduated from [a computer science program], so I have background and experience in algorithms,” said Lim. “But I was hired by ECE and most ECE students don’t have that much programming experience or understanding of algorithms.”
Lim didn’t use games as Behjat did in her floorplanning lessons. For Lim, the best way to teach his students was by using small examples. “Then you can work with pen and pencil,” he noted.
The second challenge involves where students want to eventually work. They’re thinking Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Meantime, Lim wants them to pay attention to EDA companies. “It’s all about impact. If you work at an EDA company, the chance to make an impact is much higher,” he said. “In EDA, the tool you developed can be released as a commercial tool.”
Challenge number three: with 78 students, “grading is going to be a serious issue for me.” Especially if exams involve essay questions. It’s no wonder Lim has turned to true/false questions.
The last challenge Lim highlighted was the class project. Again, with 78 students, grading was tough and the students do need a lot of attention. Lim promised to share his experiences in this area at next year’s CDNLive conference.
You can view Behjat's and Lim's presentations from the CDNLive Silicon Valley proceedings webpage.