A Candid Conversation with Ursula Wolz

Ursula Wolz is a visiting professor from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). She began her education in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology, then transitioned over to a master’s in Computing Education and finally a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Columbia University. It is no wonder, then, that her experience and acclaim are in computer science education, interdisciplinary computer science, and “interactive storytelling,” all of which involve combining narrative with computer programming.

She is teaching two sections of Software Design and one of Game design this semester at Olin.


FRANKLY: Could you talk a little bit about your background in game design?

WOLZ: Thirty years ago I was one of the first game designers. I worked for Children’s Television Workshop. At the College of New Jersey we founded an interactive multimedia major 10 years ago. I had an option of building an HCI [human-computer interfaces] course, but received Microsoft funding to create an interdisciplinary two semester games course. We did that for about six years. I brought it here, but we had to make some compromises— we could only do it in one semester, and it’s primarily a computing course. In the TCNJ course you could take it as a writer or a musician or an artist or a programmer. It’s more Olin-esque here, which is probably the best way to put it.

FRANKLY: In your faculty profile, you mention that you’re interested in interactive storytelling. What is “interactive storytelling,” and how does that relate to this?

WOLZ: One of my collaborators in the interactive multimedia program at TCNJ is Kim Pearson. She’s a journalist, and she and I started talking about interactive storytelling before we designed the games curriculum. We have collaborated on the notion of interactive storytelling and suggest that games are a kind of interactive storytelling. The idea is like that Clinton slogan…“It’s the story, stupid.”

Pick your favorite board game without a storyline?

FRANKLY: Probably Scrabble, maybe Settlers of Catan.

WOLZ: Well, Settlers of Catan definitely has a storyline!

FRANKLY: Yeah, I see what you mean.

WOLZ: But Scrabble…hmm. A lot of people say chess. Scrabble’s a good one…I’ll find a story there.

I’m passionate about making programming and computing accessible to people: how do mere mortals learn a formal programming language?

In class, I try to create a game workshop environment. I don’t enjoy lock stepping through the curriculum. At TCNJ, everyone, about twenty-two students, would all be working on the same project. At Olin, it’s teams of two or three students each.

FRANKLY: What are some of the differences between [teaching at] a college like Olin and a college like TCNJ?

WOLZ: A lot of what I can do here is stuff that I’ve really had to defend in the past: Project-based courses, a lot of collaboration, student-initiated work…it’s just wonderful to be able to do that here. It’s been a good year. It’s been really enjoyable to be immersed in this kind of innovative culture. I think small is good; strong community is good; self-initiated, you know…self-motivated. Curious. Articulate.

I think I’ve been an Olin professor all my life, and it’s kind of neat to be someplace where that’s really nurtured.

I should also tell you that I do a lot of work at the national level in computer science education. And there are a lot of people struggling with this: how do you prevent plagiarism? How do you motivate students? How do get them to do their homework? How do get them to read? Allen Downey calls it the “secret sauce.” Whatever it is, I’ve found it. I haven’t decomposed the method, the recipe altogether, but… [laughs]

I’m passionate about the fact that we need to be in control of the machines, that the machines not be in control of us. What’s been fun in Software Design is that all the projects are in the service of people. There are two of them that are for the Olin community. One group is reviving the Olin Directory so that it includes alums. The other one is called Sleepstalker. The idea is that you can very quickly input your sleep patterns, so you can understand when you’re under a lot of pressure and when you aren’t. We’ve been teasing each other; I’m making sure that there are no spikes in people’s sleep deprivation right before my final is due.

It’s those kind of things: how do you empower people with the data that they need, rather than creating systems that look at people as data?

FRANKLY: Anything else that you want to throw out there? Anything that you’ve observed about Olin or teaching or programming—anything else you want to talk about?

WOLZ: I think the thing that I like best about Olin—I’ve been in about six or seven different academic communities as a student or as a teacher, and what I love about Olin is that people are genuinely nice here. It’s been a lot of fun. I keep teasing people that you should just move the college to New Jersey.

FRANKLY: Do you find the Olin Bubble to be a special place?

WOLZ: Yes.. And we tease about it all the time, I mean every so often I take students and I pull them out of the Bubble for a minute. Sometimes it surprises Olin students, for example, when I talk about students at TCNJ who work fulltime, or even work halftime. Or live at home because they can’t afford to live on-campus.
There are other small schools, but they’re primarily liberal arts schools. Harvey Mudd, Grinnell, Bennington College—where my son is—and the place that was really intriguing was Marlboro College, which is tiny [total average enrollment, 330 students]. And the difference is that you guys can at least get to a city; from Marlboro it takes you a shuttle and a train and a bus and a plane to get anywhere. But again, it’s those really small communities that seem to make a big difference. It’s that intimacy that students have in the community.