When computer science and aliens meet: Putting a spin on programming with experiential learning

Innovative Educators - LogoIn this series, NUS News highlights the University’s innovative teaching strategies, spotlighting the educators breathing life into the lessons in unique and innovative ways.


It sounds like an episode from Star Trek: a spaceship crash-lands on a strange, alien planet, stranding a group of young cadets. Lost in the jungle and woefully ill-equipped, they must find a way to communicate with the planet’s furry inhabitants – or risk being blipped out of existence.

This is not the latest instalment of a space opera but Source Academy, the flagship teaching tool of CS1101S: Programming Methodology. CS1101S is the introductory course of the computer science programme at NUS.

Part video game, part learning management system, Source Academy closely follows Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP), a textbook first published in 1984 and widely considered required reading for aspiring computer scientists. But the teaching team at NUS has put a spin on it.

“Our goal is to give students experiences they can relate to,” said Associate Professor Martin Henz, one of the minds behind CS1101S and its distinctive pedagogy alongside fellow lecturers Dr Boyd Anderson, Dr Low Kok Lim, and Dr Sanka Rasnayaka. “The more meaningful their experiences are, the more effective the learning can be.”

In CS1101S, students acquire programming skills which they can then deploy to process sounds and 2D and 3D models, for instance. Source Academy contextualises these skills in a semester-long storyline, allowing students to learn through hands-on experiential learning, be it communicating with aliens or guiding robots through nuclear wastelands.

“[Computer scientists] invent our realities more than we describe what we see out there in nature,” Assoc Prof Henz said with a grin. “It is an interesting field that defies the boundaries of traditional disciplines.” 

By students, for students

Source Academy has been an integral part of the CS1101S curriculum since 2018. It is mission-critical to the education of over 800 students a year, so it may come as a surprise that the original architect of the tool is, in fact, a student.

“‘Cadet’ was Evan’s invention – he decided it would be a web-based system,” said Assoc Prof Henz, referring to the first version of Source Academy, launched in 2018.

Mr Evan Sebastian, then a prominent graduating student, had been engaged by the CS1101S teaching team to create a new learning tool. His decision to launch a web-based system was significant, allowing students and facilitators to navigate Source Academy on their devices without having to download additional software.

Beyond being pocket-sized, portable and highly accessible, CS1101S is also maintained and improved upon by students – for good reason.

“When students make their first attempt at programming, they know that the tool they are using is built by their seniors,” said Assoc Prof Henz. “They relate to it differently from how they would relate to a commercial software system.”

True enough, that emotional connection is partly why third-year computer science major Lee Hyung Woon invests time and energy to coach junior developers as they take on projects to advance Source Academy.

“As a student, you see many different kinds of learning platforms for programming out there on the internet,” said Hyung Woon. “But [Source Academy] was specifically made for CS1101S. There’s something of a community being built here.”

“Coding” is taboo

While it may be tempting to think of the course as building a community of coders, this is not entirely accurate.

The word “coding” draws a particularly impassioned response from Assoc Prof Henz.

““Coding” conveys the opposite of what computer science is,” he said. “If you speak in code, you speak a language that is purposely designed such that it cannot be understood. That’s the opposite of what we need to do when we program.”

It is why the word is semi-banned in his classes. For a generation used to the magnetism and obscurity associated with computer programming – à la falling green code in The Matrix – this may come as a shock.

For Assoc Prof Henz, it is a gradual process of guiding students back to the basics. To that end, Source Academy is designed to – counterintuitively – limit students to an extremely small sublanguage of JavaScript. This encourages them to focus less on acquiring the language and more on building up mental models that are fundamental to programming.

Still, mental models have to be put to the test – gladiator-style. In the second half of the semester, students find themselves handed a nondescript-looking kit containing what Assoc Prof Henz describes as “a brick that doesn’t have any wheels”.

In the “Sumobot” segment of the course, this kit is transformed into a robot capable of` battling other robots, and even performing tricks. For about three weeks, students work in groups of four to modify and programme their robots to victory via fight, dance and song.

“There’s no remote control involved at all,” said Assoc Prof Henz. Robots must rely on their software to devise a strategy to push other robots out of the ring.

He recalls watching two robots locked in a tie, only for one to backpedal and attack from another angle — in other words, behaving as though they had minds of their own. “That’s the core of computing – to design processes that evolve when a machine interacts in the real world,” said Assoc Prof Henz.

Beyond giving students a chance to practise their programming skills, the Sumobot contest also allows students to hone their teamwork skills by collaborating with their peers on an assignment.

“We have a lot of team projects in the School of Computing,” Assoc Prof Henz revealed. “This contest gives students a sense of what is important when working in a team.”

Magic on the horizon

At over 500,000 lines of code, Source Academy is a behemoth of a passion project. This labour of love is garnering international attention – two universities in San Francisco and Sweden have recently adopted it as part of their teaching curricula.

In March, Assoc Prof Henz will be flying to Toronto for a high-profile presentation of Source Academy at a conference for computer science educators. It may just be the next big step for the learning tool – and for experiential learning in computer science education.

The teaching itself can also be experiential. “What I enjoy most about my daily work is the classroom interaction,” admitted Assoc Prof Henz, who has been with NUS since 1997. “I like presenting the material in the most engaging way, making eye contact with students and seeing if they relate to the material.”

His love for the performative is, perhaps, a natural extension of his interest in acting. As a member of Singapore’s oldest theatre company The Stage Club, he has been part of stage productions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

With Source Academy gaining traction overseas, it is clear that it won’t be curtain-call for the programme, now in its fifth iteration, anytime soon.

One thing remains clear. Whether hurtling through space towards an alien planet or riding for Camelot, Source Academy delivers not only on the science, but also on the adventure.


Of wetlands and water snakes: Lessons from the field

Putting nature back in human nature: Exploring Asia’s environmental challenges

On the trail of Singapore’s Crazy Rich Asians: Discovering family-run businesses with a gamified twist