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M. Meyer

University of Applied Sciences (FH) Gelsenkirchen (GERMANY)
While the PrimeGame approach has primarily been used in order to combine various foundational software engineering skills such as numerical mathematics, algorithm design and programming which usually are being taught as disjunct courses in many undergraduate CS (computer science) programmes, important soft-skills like teamwork and cooperation were not addressed so far.

The PrimeGame is a simple two-player board game which, however, is not fully-enumerable and thus not to solve with pure computational power. In the first years of PrimeGame history, students were required to implement autonomous players, for the game, i.e. small Java programs, in an attempt to model their own ideas on how to play the game best and eventually beat the opponent. All submitted players did finally compete individually against each other in a tournament setting.

Using the game in class, we witnessed an increased student interest in the subject matter, as well as a lot of fun among participating students. As the PrimeGame approach has so far been used and evaluated in undergraduate CS courses not only in European but also in African environments, it also exposed different cultural attitudes towards competition-based learning: While competition seems to be a more important part of European culture, the motivational factor of individually competing with other classmates was limited in the African context.

Therefore, we proposed and investigated a different setting for the use of the PrimeGame which combines both competition and cooperation: Students are no longer individually competing with each other but competing as a team against other teams. A straightforward implementation of this idea would be to let student teams develop one player together which then competes with other group's players in the tournament. However, this would soon lead to all the well-known issues in teamwork on a single common target as the individual effort and contributions to the team result may vary widely. For the PrimeGame therefore we propose a different setting: Every student still needs to develop and submit his own player to the competition. However, they also form teams of 3 to 5 students and the final team ranking is based on the performance of the best player from each team. Thus, students are forced to work together in the design of their players and find technical means for making their individual players cooperate in order to support one of them to outperform the best players from the other teams. As each student still has to develop and submit his own but cooperative player, usually recognized drawbacks of group projects can be avoided. Students still take part in a competition which has been proven to increase motivation and activation, but they can be successful only as a team, so they need to cooperate within the team and will also need to support other team members for the sake of the team's success.

While on a technical level developing cooperative players requires some additional CS skills, e.g. agent programming and communication protocols, and will thus extend the original PrimeGame approach making it best suited for a second-year course, it also exhibits a much better balance between the two driving forces of cooperation and competition. Preliminary results show that applying this modified approach also leads to better activation and motivation of students in the African environment.