Computer science, binary searches, and a card catalog

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

When you think of the binary search algorithm you immediately think an archaeology museum is the perfect place for students to get a hands on example. Right?

Well it certainly was not what students in Nick Zufelt’s Computer Science 500 class expected when they showed up at the museum. To many of the students who had been to the Peabody with their history or science class to look at objects, it was a bit perplexing how they could be combining archaeology with computer science.

What many do not know is that the Peabody has many other resources that PA faculty can tap into.  Mr. Zufelt discovered something that Peabody Museum still had that no other place on campus (not even the OWHL!) still had: our card catalog.

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The card catalog at the Peabody Museum

When Nick first came up with the idea to use our card catalog in an interactive lab activity for his students, we were ecstatic. We love when Peabody resources are utilized for learning in such out of the box ways.  The card catalog was a perfect hands on example for students to understand the binary search algorithm.

To those who are not familiar with this concept (and I was certainly one of them!) Nick began the class with this simple introduction:

When you look up a word in the dictionary, do you start at page 1, look for the word, then move onto page 2, etc.? No, of course not. You have a more sophisticated way of searching through the massive list of words. This activity hones in on the algorithm underlying this process: the binary search algorithm. The basic idea is: chop in half, go to the half that will have your item in it; repeat.

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Nick Zufelt, computer science faculty, explaining the project to the students

Each student was then given a page listing 23 different cards from our card catalog system and told to pick one of them. Then they had to find the card and write down the process of how they found it, but in a manner that a computer could follow.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “wow that seems like a pretty easy project….” WRONG!

While this activity may strike us as simple, it actually turned into a battle of the wills for many students as they struggled throughout the period to create a very simple process that was also accurate. And when some students had a friend try their process, they often found that what they had devised was incorrect (Arrrgggg!!! The FRUSTRATION!!!!)

This type of learning helps to make abstract concepts more accessible for students as they begin learning something that forces them to think in a completely new and different manner.

Mr. Zufelt has already talked about bringing future students back for the activity and we look forward to working with him and his students on this and other computer science adventures at the Peabody!

NOTE: Despite still having a card catalog, the Peabody library is completely cataloged in the system used by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. Our librarian Mary Beth Clack is currently updating records to make monographic series more accessible.

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