Does choice of programming language affect student understanding of programming concepts in a first year engineering course?

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School of Engineering, Computing & Construction Management Faculty Publications

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McPheron, Benjamin D.; Gratiano, Stephanie M.; Palm, William J.
First year engineering; Programming; MATLAB; VBA; Computational Engineering; Computer Engineering; Engineering
article description
Most undergraduate engineering curricula include computer programming to some degree,introducing a structured language such as C, or a computational system such as MATLAB, or both. Many of these curricula include programming in first year engineering courses, integrating the solution of simple engineering problems with an introduction to programming concepts. In line with this practice, Roger Williams University has included an introduction to programming as a part of the first year engineering curriculum for many years. However, recent industry and pedagogical trends have motivated the switch from a structured language (VBA) to a computational system (MATLAB). As a part of the pilot run of this change,the course instructors felt that it would be worthwhile to verify that changing the programming language did not negatively affect students’ ability to understand key programming concepts. In particular it was appropriate to explore students’ ability to translate word problems into computer programs containing inputs, decision statements, computational processes, and outputs. To test the hypothesis that programming language does not affect students’ ability to understand programming concepts, students from consecutive years were given the same homework assignment, with the first cohort using VBA and the second using MATLAB to solve the assignment. A rubric was developed which allowed the investigators to rate assignments independent of programming language. Results from this study indicate that there is not a significant impact of the change in programming language. These results suggest that the choice of programming language likely does not matter for student understanding of programming concepts. Course instructors should feel free to select programming language based on other factors, such as market demand, cost, or the availability of pedagogical resources.