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No one gets stuck in his class

(Alonso Nichols/Tufts University/File 2010)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / June 14, 2011

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Q. Were you always a computer geek?

A. Yes, but my parents weren’t college-educated and didn’t know how to encourage my interest. At BU, I took my first computer science class and did miserably. There was nothing interesting or interactive about it. Years later, I realized I was pretty good at computer science and went after a PhD.

Q. Where did that BU class fall short?

A. There was no other human in the classroom saying, “Oh, you’re stuck on this simple thing,’’ which could be a mistyped word. At Tufts, I have armies of assistants helping anybody who’s stuck. Every question is a fair one, too. I have international relations majors sitting next to computer science majors. There’s no judgment allowed. If you make an error, you wear it like a scout badge.

Q. How do you reach both groups simultaneously, the knowledgeable and not-so-knowledgeable?

A. With simple tools. I might take a piece of Tupperware, store another piece inside it, and attach a string leading to yet another piece of Tupperware to simulate computer memory. I use crazy amounts of props, as low-tech as possible — partly for the cheese factor, to be completely honest.

Q Did you experience an “aha’’ teaching moment?

A. My first time teaching, I was using PowerPoint slides. One student kept saying, “I don’t see it.’’ So I turned off the computer, grabbed a piece of chalk, and went through the material slowly on the blackboard, without notes. Afterward, the kid said, “You’re a really good teacher when you’re not using PowerPoint.’’ That changed everything.

Q. And now?

A. I let material tell its own story. It’s like an improv show where the actors know they have a few plot elements to get out, but who cares how the rest gets filled in?

Q. You designed an exercise called “Wizard of OS.’’ What is it?

A. We take a piece of code and have a dozen kids act out its dynamic memory. Each variable gets assigned to a character wearing his or her own memory address and pointing to different locations. A wizard allocates and de-allocates the memory. The analogy is, when I know where you live, that’s possibly a dangerous thing. This play rests on that theme. It’s silly and fun.

Q. Do students giggle as they work?

A. It amazes me when, right in the middle of giggling, a student will say, “Wait. When John ran over and hit Bill, was it because of this?’’ So we take a closer look at what the plot detail was. It gives them a more tangible approach to something that might otherwise seem confusing and dry.

Q. Are there really no computers in your classroom?

A. Never. In the lab, obviously yes. But the lecture part is computer-free. Students can bring their laptops. If I’m boring them and they’re on Facebook, I don’t care.

Q. Why is it important that more female students study computer science?

A. For me, it’s personal. I thought I was good at computer science, then I didn’t think so. Then I came back to it. To me, computer science is the new math. Even the SAT test might someday examine how well a student thinks algorithmically. The ability to connect with problems and puzzles is inherent in everyone, I think. With female students, recruitment has been 100 percent word of mouth.

Q. When it comes to US students falling behind in math and science, are you an optimist or pessimist?

A. I’m an extreme optimist. Understand, I personally use almost no social media. I also see a generation raised on video games who only want to beat the computer. Yet I’m optimistic that this games phase will yield to a swell of more creative algorithmic thinking. That’s something the United States has been very good at historically.

Q. Contemplating any new teaching techniques?

A. I have a new puppy, and what I’ve learned from my dog trainer is, she’ll do anything if I reward her. So I’m working on how I might reward my students on a daily — not weekly — basis so they’ll be better at solving problems as a group.

Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

WHO
Ben Hescott
WHAT
Hescott, 40, teaches computer science at Tufts University. He received the 2011 undergraduate teaching award given by the California-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society for his imaginative approach to classroom learning — and commitment to boosting interest in computer science among female students. A Michigan native, Hescott did his undergraduate and graduate work at Boston University before joining the Tufts faculty four years ago.