Science & Research

CS department raises funds to endow TA positions

Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Endowment over halfway to $10 million fundraising goal

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Department of Computer Science announced plans last week to create a $10 million endowment in order to provide funding for undergraduate teaching assistants in all computer science courses. As of press time, the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Endowment had raised $5,588,532.

Undergrad teaching assistants have been a critical component of teaching since the department’s creation in 1979. But the increasing popularity of CS courses and a lack of additional financial support from the University have caused the department to look for other ways to fund the program, said Andy van Dam, professor of computer science.

Maintaining the program currently requires about $500,000 — a figure that is projected to  rise over the years, said Thomas Doeppner, associate research professor of computer science and vice chair of the department. Since the endowment is expected to yield roughly 5 percent annually, a $10 million endowment would provide $500,000 a year, he added.

Many of the donors thus far have served as or interacted with undergraduate TAs during their time at Brown. They have donated because they recognize that the experience has impacted them greatly, said Ugur Cetintemel, professor of computer science and chair of the department.

Donors have the opportunity to contribute an amount individually or as part of a group, Cetintemel said. They can also donate in honor of a person, group or in support of a cause, he said.

Karen Smith Catlin ’85 P’18, an organizer of the fundraising efforts who served as a TA for van Dam, brought together her friends a donor group called “Women of CS ’85” that contributed a total of nearly $50,000. Catlin said she was most grateful for the community and sense of confidence that the program bestowed upon her.

“Being part of a community was so important to me as a woman. I felt like I belonged even though computer science was male-dominated,” Catlin said. After starting her career as a software engineer and later becoming vice president of Adobe Systems, Catlin now works as a consultant to empower and coach women in the technology industry.

Donors also have the option of designating money toward a TA position for a female or a minority student, Cetintemel said.

“We are actively working on reaching out to these groups to increase interest in the (undergraduate) TA program,” he added.

Of the funds raised so far, $2,461,050 — over 44 percent of the total — has been donated in honor of van Dam, who has been a University faculty member since 1965.

Ed Lazowska ’72, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington and a former TA and undergraduate research assistant, donated $100,000 in honor of van Dam. Lazowska said some of his favorite moments involved playing pranks on van Dam with fellow TAs and long hours spent working on projects.

“I dabbled in a number of majors as an undergrad and stumbled into computer science and fell in love with it,” Lazowska said. “I am a faculty member today because of the experience I had as an (undergraduate) TA and an (undergraduate research assistant) under Andy van Dam. He was the first person who treated me, intellectually, like an adult.”

Norm Meyrowitz ’81, former president of products for Macromedia and a leader of fundraising efforts, donated $150,000 in honor of van Dam. Meyrowitz said he enjoyed the camaraderie of the TAs, adding that the experience made him “confident that (he) could make things happen in the industry.”

“Everybody feels like they’re part of a family with a 50-year history,” Meyrowitz said. “People are (donating) not out of obligation, but out of appreciation and love for the whole program and to help other people have these opportunities.”

Approximately 200 students serve as TAs every semester. Large introductory-level courses such as CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” taught by van Dam, require 40 TAs to maintain a ratio of about 10 students to every TA, he said. Though the University at times has suggested hiring fewer TAs to meet the budget, the department is “unwilling to compromise the quality” of the program, he added.

Undergraduate TAs bring a level of understanding to the course that many graduate students cannot, van Dam said.

“The age difference is much smaller, so they can remember back to a year ago when they were struggling with the material and therefore generally have more empathy,” he said.

The TAs have a variety of responsibilities, including putting together PowerPoint lectures, grading assignments and creating skits, van Dam said. They are also involved with running the labs, designing the assignments and projects and providing about 150 office hours over the course of the semester.

In office hours, TAs interact with students one-on-one and help them figure out how to solve complex problems using computational thinking and “the power of programming,” Cetintemel said.

Benefits from the program also extend to the TAs themselves.

“You learn the material twice as well and become more able to communicate effectively. I am a TA because I care about all the students out there,” said Emma Herold ’17, who was a TA for CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction” in fall 2014. Herold is currently one of two “meta-TAs” who carry out administrative duties and coordinate the entire TA program across the department.

Alexa Van Hattum ’16, a head TA for CSC I015, said her four semesters as a TA have made her more confident in her career choice.

“It solidified my position and made me realize that somewhere down the line, I want to be involved with computer science education,” Van Hattum said.

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