Step 39: Build a Student Computer Science Community

When I first learned about my job, one of the my first goals I set is to establish a community around computer science. I actually find this mildly amusing, since I’ve never considered myself a particularly social person, nor do I feel I have the skills to create a sense of community in others, and yet here I am.

Mostly this entry will be about students. This is not because I haven’t built a network of faculty and staff to work with, but because I still don’t quite understand what I am doing or what I’m trying to accomplish. Having more experience with what students struggling with and how to support them, it’s easier to articulate why I am doing the things I am doing, and also talk about how I think it has worked out.

Since I only started teaching computer science this semester, the only thing I started doing last semester is to get to know students are already in the computer science program. This was mostly through the student-run Open Source club, which I have mentioned before on this blog. Although the club was not a large one, attending the meetings and getting to know the club officers ended up being one of my key sources of information into what students think of computer science. It helped that some them of there were in my Topics in AI course as well, so I saw these students in both academic and more social settings.

One of the more remarkable things that the club did was that the volunteered their time to peer tutor less advanced students for their programming assignments. This is particularly commendable given that Oxy’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) pays students to do the same thing. So of course I went and talked to the CAE, and got them to pay one student for continuing to do what they do. By coincidence, we managed to coordinate our schedule so that peer tutoring hours are the day before homeworks are due, and I’ve heard that every week about five students from my class show up every week, which is a pretty good turnout.

But this is still not ideal – the tutor is a peer, but some are more peer than others. What I really want is for students in the class to be helping each other out. I implemented three policies towards that end. First, I am giving 1% extra credit for general helpfulness. I will admit that I am not yet sure how I will assign that 1%, but it will likely be from surveying students about the top three people outside of their project teams who have helped them the most (I will have to be careful to avoid social effects/sampling bias). Second, I enabled the online forums, one for discussing course content and the other for general computer science news. These have proven helpful on occasion, but their general use is still less than what I imagined they would be.

The last thing – and I thought this was the cleverest of the three – is that I held what I call “work sessions” for students. The inspiration came from hearing about how groups of faculty would meet once a week over the summer to just get work done, even if they are from completely different fields. What struck to me is that I have never heard of students taking part in it. There’s no inherent reason why they couldn’t join, as long as they were actually working, and it would contribute to the intellectual community of the college.

So starting two weeks ago, I organized a two hour work session every week. As I explained to the students, the idea was to have a predetermined time where students would be in the same physical space, so they can use each other as resources. I told them I will also be there, but – and I enjoyed telling students this – I won’t be answering questions about the course. About ten students came to the first one, and roughly the same number to the second. Of course, I did end up answering some questions, but I felt no obligation to do so, and if I wasn’t chatting with students about other things, I just did my own work while keeping an ear on the conversation. I had hoped that students would self organize another work session yesterday or today, given that their first project is due, but no such organization has appeared (at least not on the course forums).

I think these are good efforts for the first six months of being at Oxy. My strongest tie to students is through the Open Source club, but a number of those students are graduating, so I’ll have to start building ties with the next generation of club officers. The most sustainable of these efforts is the student work session, and I honestly wouldn’t mind being “required” to work two more hours each week. My goal is to have students self-organize these sessions, with students taking different computer science classes (or who formerly took computer science classes) present, and being willing to help students who are not as far along in the curriculum. I think this goal is achievable, even if it takes a couple years, and I hope I am up the task of making it happen.

Step 39: Build a Student Computer Science Community

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