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Teach Real-World Skills with an Industry Simulation

When one web engineering professor saw that students lacked business savvy, he structured his class around teamwork and deliverables.

Educator

Samir Tartir, PhD

Head and Assistant Professor, Department of Web Engineering and Department of Management Information Systems, Philadelphia University

PhD, MSc, and BSc, Computer Science

Anyone who expects Samir Tartir, PhD, to treat them like a student is in for a surprise. Taking his Database Fundamentals course feels more like becoming an employee at a company than a student at Philadelphia University.

“I’m transforming a regular classroom into a professional environment,” Tartir explains. “I tell them that I am essentially the CEO, and on the first day they receive a team project that will be completed over a series of months.”

He begins by displaying a complex database of about 40 interconnected tables, created during his time in the private sector, and he asks students, “Do you understand anything from this?”

Of course, he anticipates that he will be met with widespread confusion, but 6 weeks later when he shows it again, the response is much more positive. “It’s like the students have learned a new language,” Tartir reflects.

Challenge: A need for more real-world prep

Having begun his career in the business world, Tartir has a firm understanding of what the field demands, and he was not convinced that the typical classroom environment was preparing college students for that world.

“I realized I needed the students to be able to do the things I was able to do,” Tartir says. “Too often, students are asked to produce a report [on the topic of] an Oracle or SQL server, or maybe complete a few quizzes. But they need something practical to carry with them [into the work world]. They need to learn how to create a physical database.”

Beyond that, most students require development of the crucial and oft-overlooked competencies that employers expect. “The goal is to help students practice teamwork, time management, presentation skills, and even simple communication,” he explains. “I require students to email me their project proposals, and it’s funny because many of these students have not used email as much as you’d expect. They need to learn how to send a professional email.”

Innovation: Basing assignments on a business model

By using a business model rather than an academic approach, Tartir goes above and beyond the “delivery” of facts about database building. He also requires students to apply their newfound skills in a setting that closely simulates the environment that will be their next stop: the workplace.

Tartir’s approach got its start when, because of his previous experience in the private sector, he was tapped to represent Philadelphia University in its collaboration with professionals in a division of the World Bank. The goal was to study the Jordanian information and communication technologies market, identify competencies that were lacking among newly graduated tech professionals, and offer solutions to get them up to speed. “Together we created several workshops designed to teach employees some of the skills that were most needed in the industry,” he says.

Tartir then began to use this work to better prepare his own students for their careers after graduation. First and foremost, he challenges students to apply the knowledge they gain through his lectures rather than to simply memorize facts and terminology.

The culmination of this is a semester-long group project—the creation of a functional database. Tartir declares, “When [students] have to create something real, it gives them more motivation.”

Context

Course: CIS 235 Database Fundamentals
Frequency: Three 60-minute meetings per week
Class size: 15–20 students
Course description: This course introduces the database concept and explains the different database models, focusing on the relational model. It therefore goes into the details of relational algebra. The course also covers E-R diagrams, Oracle 11g SQL, normalization, and distributed databases; and it introduces database administration issues in Oracle 11g.
In his words: “It’s the first course [students] take introducing them to database technologies, so we start off [with] what databases and database management systems are. At the same time, we get into relational algebra and normalization, both of which are very important concepts. Beyond just the databases, we want them to study the tables within them for relationships that might not be as obvious so they can make modifications for the sake of efficiency.”

CIS 235 Database Fundamentals

See materials

Lesson: The Database Deliverables Project

Tartir leverages a single, medium-scale project over the course of the semester to provide his students with a sustained opportunity to practice the skills he hopes to impart. His approach and use of business terminology emulates the iterative process students will encounter when entering the workforce.

Here is how he executes his project plan (aka lesson):

Break the project into deliverables

Rather than assigning a huge project with a single due date, Tartir divides the expectations into a series of deliverables, which he explains is business-speak for anything that is produced (or “delivered” or “turned in”) as part of a business project. This includes goods, services, reports, and so on. Breaking projects into deliverables makes them more manageable both in the workplace and in the classroom.

His approach also means students are not able to procrastinate, waiting until the hectic, essay-and-exam-packed end of the semester to get started. “[It] ensures they can focus carefully on each part of the project and [therefore] produce better work,” he says.

Provide hard-and-fast deadlines

On the first day of class, Tartir’s students receive an overview of the project they are to complete, as well as the dates for each deliverable. “This is the fourteenth time I’ve taught this course, so I have a good idea of how long each deliverable will take,” Tartir shares.

Schedule breakdown

Deliverable 1: Teams & titles. (1 Mark). Due by 13/Mar

Deliverable 2: Requirements. (2 Marks). Due by 27 Mar

Deliverable 3: ER Diagram. (3 Marks). Due by 10/Apr (Use DIA)

Deliverable 4: Schema. (3 Marks). Due by 24/Apr

Deliverable 5: Create the DB. (2 Marks). Due by 3/May

Deliverable 6: Add Data. (2 Marks). Due by 15/May

Deliverable 7: System. (2 Marks). Due by 29/May

He also clearly outlines his policy regarding work that is late. “[These dates are] not a soft thing,” says Tartir. “It’s a list of hard deadlines they have to respect.”

Allow opportunities for decision making

Tartir’s first deliverable, Teams & Titles, is due a few weeks after class begins. While it may seem far from the ultimate goal of creating a database, it is invaluable for building professional skills.

For this deliverable, students choose a group of people to work with and a fictional client (such as a hospital, pharmacy, or gym). The client will help determine what data they plan to organize in the database they will create. Tartir offers students a great deal of leeway in making these selections, which helps strengthen their decision-making skills.

Students in Tartir's class

Employ business-style communication

To complete the Teams & Titles deliverable, each group sends Tartir an email proposal outlining their scope of work (another term they will encounter in the business setting). Tartir explains, “I’m not just teaching them time management. I explain to them how to format their emails and what to put in the subject line.”

Tartir created an email address separate from his university email address so his inbox does not get filled up. “I set it up so that students receive an automatic reply that their submission has been received and will be reviewed,” he adds.

Use presentations to provide real-time feedback

After submitting each deliverable, students must give a brief presentation about it in front of the class. “Groups typically select one member to be a secretary of the meeting. [That person writes] down the feedback the group receives,” he says. For students watching the presentation, this is an opportunity to reinforce and apply their own learning by providing constructive feedback to their peers, along with Tartir’s own suggestions.

“I might stand up and make some modifications to their work on the board, and these modifications will be captured,” he says. Receiving feedback early and often allows students to course-correct throughout the project, rather than at the end (or not at all). “Then the group goes back and implements these in the next deliverable of their project,” he adds.

Student feedback

Tartir acknowledges some reticence from students who may not be used to completing more intricate, hands-on projects. However, he says he has witnessed student buy-in and development over time. By the end of the semester, they understand his methods and begin to realize how much better prepared they will be than their less professionally trained peers.

He adds proudly, “I’ve heard students say, ‘If you want some easy grades, go take another class. But if you want to really learn how to create a database, take Dr. Tartir.’”

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