Authentic Learning Experiences
“Students can bring together a huge number of the things they have learned throughout their undergraduate program to produce one piece of software that they can be really proud of and that they can show off when trying to get in to the industry.” –Dr. Ben Stephenson
Dr. Ben Stephenson, a Teaching Professor in the Department of Computer Science, believes that the best way to assess students in computer science is to have them write programs. One of his courses, CPSC 585: Games Programing, is a capstone project course where students develop and create a playable computer game. Students that enroll in the course are close to completing their degrees, so they have a lot of experience and knowledge that they can apply to the project.
The lectures for CPSC 585 all occur during block week. Then the students spend the rest of the semester working independently to develop their games. Industry experts, usually lead designers and developers from well-known game companies, come in to teach the block week lectures. They share their professional experiences and expertise with the students. They also help Dr. Stephenson assess the projects. Students receive a lot of high-quality feedback about their work from the industry experts.
Students work in teams to create their games. Dr. Stephenson assigns members to the teams based on both the students’ academic standing and their areas of interest and expertise. His goal is to create teams that are balanced and that have all of the skills needed to create an interesting game. Dr. Stephenson also notes that junior employees have little control over who their co-workers are once they start working in industry, and working in teams formed by the instructor forces the students to learn to work with different people.
The requirements for the game project are flexible, with the primary constraint simply being that it must be a driving game. This constraint is imposed because driving games require students to explore a variety of technical topics while having minimal need for complex art. Students are free to be creative with the other aspects of the game, and this has resulted in students implementing a very wide range of interesting game concepts.
The final product is worth 50% of the course grade. The rest of the marks come from four milestones spread throughout the semester. The first milestone is a design document where students outline their game concept, its intended features and a schedule for its completion. The second milestone is a prototype of the driving gameplay, while the third expects students to have a drivable vehicle, AI opponents, sound and a prototype level. At the end of the fourth milestone, the game is expected to be ‘feature complete’ but in need of further polish and refinement to make it more enjoyable to play. These milestones help students stay on track with the project and gives them opportunities for feedback and advice while their games are still in development.
One of the major focuses of the course is making the game fun. Students like making their games technically advanced and interesting, but Stephenson reminds them that the technical attributes alone aren’t what makes a game enjoyable for a player. The students are encouraged to think about their favorite games and what makes them fun, and to try apply similar ideas to their own projects. Grading whether or not a game is fun may sound difficult, but as Dr. Stephenson and the experts play the games, they are usually able to quickly determine if the game is fun or not.
Students really enjoy the practical aspect of the course, and this is reflected in their final products. A lot of time, effort and dedication is put into the games. They are usually very well done, and grades in the course are often high as a result. As with any team project, problems occasionally arise with team members who aren’t contributing. Fortunately this problem is rare as students require department consent to enroll in the course and express their passion for game development as part of the gaining that consent.
The games industry is highly competitive and difficult to get into, but many students taking the course hope to work in the field after finishing their degree. CPSC 585 gives them the opportunity to not only make a game to use as a portfolio piece and example, but it also connects them to experts in the field and gives them a chance to demonstrate their programming skills to them. The experts often use the course as an opportunity to identify new talent and recruit outstanding students to work for their companies. Although the project course is a lot of work for everyone involved, the benefits make it worthwhile.
To read about how Dr. Stephenson assesses in his junior-level computer science course, click here