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Friday, April 27, 2018

WCC, U-M collaborate to share programming course

A unique collaboration among faculty at Washtenaw Community College and the University of Michigan School of Information will share an open-source course with the goal of encouraging more students, particularly those underrepresented in STEM fields, to consider a U-M Bachelor of Science in Information (BSI) degree.

The two institutions have teamed up to offer WCC students an introductory class in the popular programming language Python that UMSI uses as a gateway course to its degree.

“I’m really excited about giving students a chance to look at different options,” said Michael Galea, professional faculty of Computer Information Systems at WCC, who will teach the course. 

“We’re hopefully going to find students interested in a different career path than what we have currently,” he said, noting that many WCC graduates go into areas like computer science and cybersecurity, as a result of current partnerships. The BSI offers something new, he said, as the degree is focused on information analysis, user experience design, and social media analysis and design.

Historically a graduate school, UMSI began offering a bachelor’s in 2014. The UMSI major is an upper-class program, meaning students enter the program in their junior year. Those already on U-M’s campus have the ability, however, to take the introductory course as a pre-requisite. A good understanding of programming in Python is an important foundation for future learning in the BSI.

School of Information leaders wanted to figure out how to make the transition easier for students coming from outside the U-M system. Program Director Barry Fishman said they also wanted to “grow the program’s socioeconomic diversity and expand the range of pathways to STEM fields like information science,” so they turned to WCC for input and potential collaboration.

“The BSI program is trying to be as friendly as possible to students coming from all backgrounds, and we are putting special effort into smoothing the path for a student looking to transfer to U-M from community college,” Fishman said.

In Fall 2016, Fishman and UMSI staff members Devon Keen and Katy Ross Peters went to WCC during an annual partnership conference the community college holds and asked how the schools could encourage more students to think about additional study at U-M. UMSI leaders felt more could be done to encourage student interest and support their success.

It was through those discussions that the idea of course sharing arose. WCC was not teaching Python, while U-M has several courses built around the program.

“Most community colleges don’t have an introductory Python course, and we think ours is a particularly good one,” Fishman said. “We realized it was possible to make course materials available to WCC, and they were interested in doing a pilot run with us to see what challenges there are in sharing a course.”

The highly interactive course, created by U-M professor and associate dean for research and faculty affairs Paul Resnick, uses an open-source online textbook, complete with interactive exercises for students to practice programing. The book has embedded multiple-choice questions, samples of code that are mixed up for students to rearrange into proper order, and exercises that allow them to create and run code.

Some lecture material can be delivered through online videos, and the use of a course management system allows for interactive discussions and activities around the content. U-M uses the course management system Canvas but WCC was able to integrate it with its Blackboard system.

The beauty behind open-source sharing, Resnick said, is that instructors at WCC can pick and choose the elements that work best for them.

“We’ve seen the power of sharing of open-source, not just for software but for other content,” he said.

“Python is increasingly being used in many places. It’s easy to get started with, it’s a real programing language and it’s easier than other languages,” Resnick said. “WCC has been interested in moving toward Python and they wanted to experiment with us.”

Susan Dentel, a WCC faculty member in the Life Sciences Department, believes exposure to Python will give the students in a new STEM program a leg up.

“Having this experience will put them in a good position for the job market and for future research,” Dentel said.

She is the co-principal investigator on a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation grant from the National Science Foundation to encourage more underrepresented minority students to choose STEM careers. The grant that includes U-M, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University will bring students together for the first time this summer in a cohort that will go through a two-year program at WCC together.

She also administers another program that serves economically disadvantaged students and believes participants in both programs could benefit from learning Python. Dentel said with the addition of the new course, there is the potential of adding an information science track to the WCC program.

Articulation agreements and other less formal collaborative efforts to help students to transition from community college to four-year institution are not new. But the sharing of course resources in this fashion is unique and could serve as a model for other programs, the leaders said.

The debut course, CPS 141: Introduction to Programming, is being offered during the Winter 2018 semester and is nearly at capacity, Galea said.

In addition to the new course, UMSI has developed a range of other opportunities for community college students to become familiar with the field of information science, such as a Community College Summer Institute designed to bring students to the U-M campus to meet with UMSI faculty and staff.

-- Story by Laurel Thomas, University of Michigan News

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