Nathan Dinh ’25 and Christian Lopez, assistant professor of computer science (affiliated with mechanical engineering), have teamed up to research how gamification and machine learning can be used to teach programming.

Funded by the EXCEL Scholars Program, their work together is focused on developing personalized gamified educational applications that look and feel like computer games but whose main purpose is to teach programming by adapting to the skill level and learning pace of the individual student.

Nathan Dinh ’25 and Prof. Christian Lopez

Nathan Dinh ’25 and Prof. Christian Lopez

“We have a model running in the background of the application that collects data from how the student learns and interacts with the app,” says Dinh, a computer science major. “Imagine how Netflix sees what shows you’re watching and then determines what kind of viewer you are, what kind of shows you like. In the same way, we’re building up what kind of learner you are. And then we’re using that to change what the app actually looks like and feels like as learning progresses.”

Anyone who wants to learn coding will benefit from this approach, and teachers will also benefit by seeing what actually makes a student learn better, especially regarding coding, he adds.

Lopez, whose research interests include machine learning, persuasive technologies, and gamification, does not believe in micromanaging any of his students. The unique challenges they face is all about the rich undergraduate experience that Lafayette offers, he notes.

“Sometimes we encounter challenges we’ve never seen before,” Lopez says. “I will guide them based on my prior experience. It’s more of a team approach in which I guide them through the process to help them figure it out.”

Dinh says he values the independence that Lopez fosters.

“I got into it because I wanted to gain experience and broaden my horizons, and see what research was like, improve my coding and data analysis skills, and expand my knowledge on different topics of machine learning,” he says. “Prof. Lopez explains the research and gives me a task, and then I work independently and figure it out on my own. Yet he’s always there to guide me. It’s super rewarding.”

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