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Source of Inspiration
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
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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 taught the course in the past two 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. Enterprising souls have seized on the chance to tweak the technology, creating nearly a quarter-million apps that are available for download from the 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, including the students themselves.
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 eight 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 a cold Monday night in February, 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.
“Yeah. It could be a good part of your final project,” Pepe replies. “Actually, if you build one, I’m going to use it in future classes.”
Members of this current class will work up to more advanced projects, using Google Maps and the SQLite relational database. In the spring 2011 semester, students created apps such as a parked-car locator and a “Boston Area College Information Finder,” which gave details about local schools and links to each institution’s website.
Recognition for the course moved onto a public stage in December, when Pepe was one of four faculty to receive Bentley’s Innovation in Teaching Award for 2011.
“The CIS Department has given me lots of support and encouragement in this. I am really grateful,” he 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 — wins praise from students such as former CIS major Nic Smits ’12.
“He taught the course ‘on demand’” says Smits. “If a particular Android feature wasn’t covered under the syllabus or in the books, he was happy to bring it into the classroom if we asked.”
Smits left that classroom with technical skills that found a receptive audience among future employers. He joined the Technical Development Program at Liberty Mutual upon graduating in May.
Another course booster is Sam Diament ’11, a former CIS and Liberal Studies major with a minor in Business Economics. He is now pursuing Bentley’s MS in Information Technology.
“Professor Pepe was very open to taking questions and experimenting in class, while also teaching us,” says Diament, who cites several benefits to the professor’s approach. “First, we knew we were learning the most up-to-date material about Android. Second, he was not lecturing down to us. He respected us and, I believe, he saw an opportunity to learn from us as well.”
The 3.0 version of the course is already underway, with Pepe tweaking content as he learns more about Android through his own work – and from his students.
“I enjoy interacting with them,” he says. “I like how I have to stay on top of technology areas, and have the freedom to keep learning.”