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Source of Inspiration

How do you teach a course whose subject matter won’t sit still? If you’re Bentley CIS professor James Pepe, you make the curriculum as open to innovation as the technology being covered.

The resulting course — Android Application Development — delivers a hands-on, hard-core look at the popular smartphone operating system. Students learn how it works, then apply the lessons to create their own Android applications. Pepe has taught the course in the past three spring semesters.

Dreaming in code
Google’s Android is built around an open-source model, which makes its inner workings free and available to software developers around the world. Through early April 2013, enterprising souls have built more than 650,000 Android apps, which are available for download from Google Play (formerly known as Android Market).

“Android is one of the two major breakthroughs in computing in the past several years, the other being cloud computing,” says Pepe.“There are few restrictions. Google has just allowed innovation to happen.”

Access to such innovation is a software developer’s dream. But designing a curriculum around something so changeable is another matter. Pepe met the challenge by creating an “open-source” course: one dynamic enough to keep up with fast-moving technology, and flexible enough to take cues from anywhere or anyone, including his students.

Pepe’s path to teaching is similarly untraditional. The Brooklyn native earned his doctorate at MIT and spent 30 years in the computer industry, before accepting an adjunct position at Bentley eleven years ago. The appointment became full time after a year.

“My teaching style is hands on,” he says. “That’s the only way to really understand computing concepts. Don’t come to class without your laptop — you’re going to be lost. And if you have something to contribute to the lecture, I want to hear it.”

Open to suggestion
On one cold winter night, Pepe was hearing plenty. His students were immersed in the first course project: creating an app to calculate restaurant tips, with an extra button to open a web browser. One student asks about adding a navigation bar, so users could see the URL they are accessing.

“It could be a good part of your final project,” Pepe replies. “Actually, if you build one, I’m probably going to use it in future classes.”

To date, some of the most interesting student-created apps include:

  • a “tour guide app for the Boston Freedom Trail;
  • a Bentley Monopoly app, where the players are connected to the board and each other through Android;
  • a navigation tool for Massachusetts General Hospital; and
  • an app for Bentley’s Computer Information Systems Sandbox.

While the course has earned rave reviews from students since its inception, Android Application Development was formally recognized in 2011, when Pepe was one of four faculty members to earn Bentley’s Innovation in Teaching Award.

“The CIS Department has given me lots of support and encouragement in this. I’m really grateful,” Pepe says. “Think about Bentley: Bentley is a business school, and the CIS Department already has a set of courses that fits in very nicely with that idea. We did [this course] experimentally for one semester and it paid off.”

The course — and Pepe’s methodology — continues to win praise from students.

”I really like Professor Pepe’s hybrid teaching style,” says Kunal Deopore ’13, a Corporate Finance and Accounting Major who will intern at GE Capital before pursuing a Master of Science in Information Technology degree at Bentley next year. “For part of a class, he’ll lecture about the concepts and fundamentals of a given topic, and thoroughly explain what’s going on. Then, he offers examples – or explains things in a different way – so that it’s easier for us to understand.”

The 4.0 version of the course is already underway, with Pepe tweaking content as he learns more about Android through his own work – and that of his students.

“I enjoy interacting with them,” Pepe says. “I like how I have to stay on top of technology areas, and have the freedom to keep learning.”