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Student Course Assistant Brings New Power to PrairieLearn

3/14/2019 1:10:10 PM Bill Bell, Illinois Engineering

CS senior Nathan Walters has changed how engineering students learn and get feedback on homeworks and exams.
CS senior Nathan Walters has changed how engineering students learn and get feedback on homeworks and exams.
This is a story about how undergraduate education should work. And about how student-faculty collaboration should work. And about how hackathons should work. And computer-based learning. And quick iterative design. And student leadership.

Mostly, it’s a story about how much impact a single student can have in the right environment. Nathan Walters is that student, and he’ll graduate from the computer science program in May. 

A couple of years ago, Walters and a few of his friends participated in Hack Illinois, the big hackathon on campus that draws more than 1,000 students every year. Teams don’t get much sleep, but they do complete ambitious coding projects. Matthew West brought one of those projects to the table. West is a mechanical engineering and science professor and an Education Innovation Fellow at Illinois. 

He’s one of those faculty members who spends all day on his research and somehow manages to also spend all day on his teaching—and brings the same passion and inventiveness to both. You find a lot of those people at Illinois, and they’re doing big things.

One of West’s big projects, collaborating with several other Illinois engineering professors, is PrairieLearn, an online system Illinois students use to complete homework, quizzes, and tests. (More on Prairie Learn.)

Students who use it are more autonomous, they tend to stick with their problem-sets and homework longer when they need to, and they tend to better master the skills. Teachers, meanwhile, can focus on higher-order concepts, hands-on learning opportunities, and supporting students who are struggling.

West had an idea for a new PrairieLearn feature that would autograde student coding assignments and provide immediate feedback. He took that challenge to HackIllinois, and Walters and his team built a prototype in less than two days.

But Walters didn’t stop there. Over the next two semesters, he finished a production version of the autograder.

 “I discovered, ‘Hey, this is fun,’” Walters said. “It felt natural to stay on. I want to solve problems and build things. But impacting courses and changing the way people learn, I discovered, was something I enjoy that I never would have considered.”

Walters was a member of the course staff for CS 225, a large introductory computer science course with upwards of 800 students per semester. He showed the autograder to CS Teaching Assistant Professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, who was teaching the course at the time, and decided to apply it to some of the course’s content. Within a matter of days, the students were getting automatic results and help on assignments using the autograder in PrairieLearn. 

“Wade’s not a gate-keeper. He really trusts his course staff. We rolled out demos of ‘problem of the day’ assignments shortly after he looked at the initial work. Students loved the instant feedback. We took the data to Wade, and it expanded from there. Course staff knows PrairieLearn and CS 225 very deeply, so we were able to get an idea, figure out how to use it, and implement it,” Walters said.

In short order, because the demos and feedback went so well, CS 225 was using the autograder in all its coursework and exams. Exams that often took weeks to grade were back in students’ hands immediately. Homework problems could be worked and re-worked until students had mastered the content.

“Nathan’s good at all the academic things. Smart. Technically strong. Sees what needs to be done and gets on with it. All the things that go without saying,” West said. “But what’s really great is that he’s also passionate about helping other people and treats them all like colleagues. So many students treat faculty as another species. Nathan doesn’t. We encourage that, and we want more of that.”

That attitude has paid off. With Nathan’s help, more than 15 classes in several departments are using the autograder in PrairieLearn. He’s also built new queueing tools for running office hours in PrairieLearn. 

“I’m a big cheerleader for PrairieLearn, the autograder, and Nathan. You ask him a question, and—bang—he responds,” said CS Teaching Assistant Professor Mariana Silva, who has taught both computer science and mechanical engineering courses using PrairieLearn.

This is an exceptional case—thousands of students every semester are using a tool that an undergraduate built and helped deploy across the College. But a lot of Illinois Engineering stories have common themes: deep collaboration among students and faculty, a drive to innovate not just in a technical field but in education as well, and a kernel of an idea growing into major, measurable impact.

The Illinois experience has worked out pretty well for Nathan Walters, too. About the time West was introducing him to the idea of an autograder, Walters also started taking part in “Out for Undergrad,” a series of national leadership conferences for high-achieving LGBTQ students. An O4U career fair introduced him to NerdWallet, which led to an internship and then a job offer. A job offer that he received and accepted in September of his senior year, no less. 

Sometimes a small thing—a Hackathon project, a meeting at a career fair, a few minutes of a professor’s time—can tell a big story.