A First-Year Dyad in Human-Centered Computing

Amy Csizmar Dalal ( Computer Science) and Mija Van Der Wege (Psychology), Carleton College


A service-learning based dyad consisting of two linked courses: one a first-year seminar in psychology, technology, and design; one an introduction to computer science. The course is designed to foster interdisciplinary thinking about the design of computer applications, programs, and technology.

Learning Goals

We have outlined four learning goals for this course:
1. Gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the interactions between users and software.
2. Apply what they have learned in both courses to the redesign of an existing software interface.
3. Gain proficiency in designing and executing experiments to test a hypothesis and to analyze and interpret the resulting data.
4. Gain proficiency in the development of algorithms to solve complex problems based on requirements statements.
As you can see, our learning goals focus both on particular disciplines (3 and 4) and cross-disciplinary goals (1 and 2). Our goal in this course is to develop both intra-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary critical-thinking and problem-solving skills very early on in the students' Carleton experience. This will position our students well to solve 21st century problems, which require strong domain knowledge, strong technical knowledge, and an ability to synthesize and apply information from a variety of areas.

Context for Use

This course is designed for entering first-year students. It assumes that the students have no background in computer science, computer programming, psychology, or statistics. It is appropriate as an introduction to computer science and as a first-year seminar in psychology, although it is not a substitute for a complete introduction to psychology course. The course is designed for class sizes of 20 or fewer students, due to the amount of hands-on and writing-intensive work in the course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Links to the handouts for the first project (Carlpedia redesign): Student handout for first week of Carlpedia lab (Acrobat (PDF) 199kB Oct28 11), Student handout for second week of Carlpedia lab (Acrobat (PDF) 121kB Oct28 11), Student handout for third week of Carlpedia lab (Acrobat (PDF) 108kB Oct28 11), http://serc.carleton.edu/details/files/30550.html Student handout for fourth week of Carlpedia lab (Acrobat (PDF) 191kB Oct28 11).

Link to the handout for the second project (Moodle module redesign): Student handout for Moodle project (Acrobat (PDF) 65kB Jul20 12)

Peer and group evaluations: pair programming (CS only) Pair programming evaluation (CS) (Acrobat (PDF) 332kB Jul12 12), group project (both) Peer evaluation (group projects) (Acrobat (PDF) 95kB Jul12 12), presentation rubric (both) Oral presentation rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 57kB Jul12 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Friday labs/projects:

  • We had highly-structured labs associated with the first project, and looser ones with the second project. Our idea was that the students would be more familiar with the content and processes the second time around; also, allowing the students to determine how to spend lab time would provide important practice in time management. The students were more comfortable with the highly-structured labs and less comfortable with the loosely-structured labs, even though we thought the students utilized their lab time well. One thing to consider, then, is to provide a bit more structure for the second project's labs: perhaps spend half the time on a structured activity and half on student-defined activities.
  • In addition to reviewing what was accomplished in the previous lab at the start of lab, reminding the students how the labwork ties to the concepts most recently covered in class is useful in anchoring the course material for the students. Doing so will help mitigate some of the confusion our students felt on how the labs connected to the course content.
  • The students enjoyed, and benefitted greatly, from the "consultations" with the ITS staff. This was an invaluable part of the project. Time-permitting, allowing for an intermediate consultation halfway through the project may be useful to the students and help keep their projects on-track.
  • Taking class time for lab does limit the amount that can be covered in class the rest of the week. This is especially pertinent to the CS portion of the course; as a full Intro CS course, certain topics must be covered in a certain amount of depth to adequately meet the goals and expectations of the course and prepare students for subsequent CS courses. This requires careful thinking and planning and a bit more outside work on the part of the students.
Class meetings (other than labs):

  • The students found the discussions most helpful in their learning of the psychology concepts. Allow adequate time for discussion of the readings.
  • Occasionally, the course readings do not fit neatly into the subject matter of the course. Find ways to make the connections between the readings and the course material, because students won't necessarily do that on their own.

Group assignments:

  • Peer evaluation was very helpful to the instructors (to help alert us to dynamics between certain students and to help us evaluate individual contributions to projects and course work) and to the students (evaluating their peers caused them to reflect on their own contributions, strengths, and weaknesses as well). We feel it is a vital part of the group work experience and that it is necessary to integrate it into the course.


We plan on assessing our students' achievement of these learning goals through two service-learning projects. In these projects, students will (1) make use of experimental methods to test computer systems, (2) evaluate user perceptual and cognitive experiences with a computer system, (3) design and create prototypes of suggested changes to current systems, (4) test proposed changes, and (5) present analysis and proposed changes to individuals in charge of developing the systems. In consultation with staff in ITS, we have selected two on-campus computer systems: Carlpedia, a wiki-based knowledge based used by support staff in ITS; and Moodle. The students will present their projects to ITS staff as a sort of "sales pitch". The students' work will be assessed based on how well they incorporate elements of good CS design and relevant psychology principles into their projects, as well as how realistic their proposals are. We will also evaluate how well the students work in teams using peer evaluation.