Professor teaches viral Star Wars-themed class

Professor Pascal Van Hentenryck, pictured above in his Yoda costume, uses Star Wars as a way to engage students in his course, Constraint Programming. // Photo courtesy of Pascal Van Hentenryck

The Technique got an opportunity to interview Professor Pascal Van Hentenryck, the associate chair for innovation and entrepreneurship and A. Russell Chandler III chair who teaches ISYE 4134, Constraint Programming.

His class went viral on TikTok at the start of the semester for its unique Star Wars theme, including Van Hentenryck dressed up in a Yoda costume during lecture.

Van Hentenryck first described what constraint programming is to any non-IE majors.

“Constraint programming is essentially a paradigm for optimization. It is the analysis of a set of constraints, timetabling and rostering. It involves solving problems that are combinatorial, involving logistics and supply chains. In the class, students also learn to model the problem and solve complex issues,” Van Hentenryck said.

The Star Wars theme incorporation into his Constraint Programming class is something that he believes helps engage students more.

“Throughout my time teaching I have always done this, where I incorporate a theme to my classes,” Van Hentenryck said. “I believe it makes everything much more interesting, and every assignment is a story. The entire course is organized throughout the entire story, and it engages students while also making them smile and puts them in a better mood.”

During the pandemic, Van Hentenryck used the online format to create more videos.

“In my lectures, I always begin with Star Wars music and tell you what the class will be about. Each lecture follows a theme from the Star Wars movies, the problems about logistics often also are organized around the characters and different problems they face in the films. Teaching in person this year, following our fully remote course last year, in class it is more challenging. I try to make it more entertaining and incorporate references/dialogue from the films with the students,” Van Hentenryck said.

While the class is in person this year, Van Hentenryck has made the video lectures from last year accessible for his students.

“While I teach the information live in class, the students still have access to my video lectures through their Georgia Tech account. The video lectures are more on theme, where I was able to incorporate music in the background, along with sound effects from the film as we go through and solve a problem,” Van Hentenryck said.

Incorporating a theme from a TV show or movie has always been something that Van Hentenryck has done.

“I have taught a high school camp which is turning into a high school course, covering the basics of computing. This course of mine follows a Marvel theme. I did a survey to see the types of movies that the students in that age group watch and found that Marvel is a well-liked and popular theme to follow. I play the role of Nick Fury in the course and incorporate music from the movie in the videos. I have found that the Marvel theme really resonates very well with the high school students,” Van Hentenryck said.

Van Hentenryck has taught classes centering around Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga in the past as well.

“I am always trying to find something that is interesting and will keep the students engaged,” Van Hentenryck said.

Having a theme that follows a movie storyline has been something that helps engage students with the class more and create a more effective learning space.

“I think it is most effective because I am passionate about what I do, and it is helpful for my students because they are able to feed from this energy. It is a hard course and by making it more interesting to my students, they can be successful in the class,” Van Hentenryck said.

“By creating an enjoyable process to model the complex problem, the students can better understand the topics.”

He also wants to ensure that he and the TAs are accessible during the learning process.

“By making jokes, and incorporating a fun theme that keeps everyone engaged, it induces approachability, and my students are more inclined to participate and feel comfortable asking questions,” Van Hentenryck said.

Van Hentenryck has several reasons for why he chose to play the character of Yoda.

“When it came to choosing a character to play with the Star Wars theme, I chose Yoda because he is the person organizing everything. Yoda is exactly that, he is the teacher,” Van Hentenryck said.

“I also like how his character embodies patience. His character plays a great role in readily answering questions, is clever and has a good sense of humor. He is my favorite character and an interesting character in Star Wars, because of his particular way of teaching people.”

Van Hentenryck’s teaching style is effective and has allowed students to better understand the material while relating it to pop culture references.

“The way I have structured my class and its success in turn has been great for the students to be able to perform well. It also challenges me to keep up the theme throughout each lecture, which I have found sometimes difficult to maintain. It is important to me to take the time to incorporate the theme within each class discussion so that it allows the class camaraderie to get to another level,” Van Hentenryck said.

Besides his video lectures, Van Hentenryck has found other ways to incorporate elements of online teaching into in person learning this semester.

“It has been great to meet with the students one-on-one and help facilitate discussion in smaller groups.

“I encourage the students to ask questions throughout class and sometimes I understand that it can be hard since many are used to interacting virtually and asking questions online through Piazza.

“To improve that interaction so that people are more likely to ask questions, playing Yoda I have found has been a great learning tool to break the ice and allow students to ask questions and interact with me, their TA’s and one another,” Van Hentenryck said.

Van Hentenryck acknowledges that teaching a course in this manner requires lots of work, but for him, it is worth it.

“Even though formulating my course in such a way that it incorporates a movie theme takes a lot of time and had even required me to build a studio at home during COVID to record my lectures, it was an investment that is well worth it,” Van Hentenryck said.

“I deeply care about teaching and keeping the students engaged.”

On a closing note, Van Hentenryck encourages other courses to adopt some of the same ideas about having fun while learning and participating.

“I think that as professors, we can always work to do a better job to get closer to our students,” Van Hentenryck said. “As faculty of Georgia Tech, we have a lot more tools that we can use to our advantage to make it more entertaining for our students to learn and stay engaged.

“There are many ways of learning, and we should want to make the learning experience fun, especially for the larger classes that are often prone to have less participation from students. Teaching to students in a fun and engaging manner allows for increased participation and better learning.

“I love that I am able to teach in this style and encourage students to continue to take courses that follow themes.”

“I love that I am able to teach in this style and encourage students to continue to take courses that follow themes.”