News, Science & Research

CS department grapples with collaboration policy, diversity

Some find community in CS department, others feel alienated, isolated by department policies

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 23, 2019

This is the second of two stories examining the workings of the University’s largest concentration — the computer science department — its value and its challenges.

Like many computer science students, Chelsey Serrano ’22 is finishing up a two-part CS intro sequence with help from close friends, who struggle together through late nights and stressful deadlines. But, as a first-generation and female student, Serrano more often than not finds herself in the minority; data shows that in 2018, close to 30 percent of CS degrees were awarded to women and 12 percent to historically underrepresented groups on campus — lagging behind the increasingly diverse demographics of the student body.

As the computer science community works to become more inclusive to underrepresented groups, its policies can make it difficult at times for all students to feel at home in the department. The sometimes severely strict no-collaboration policy, paired with a growing want for equal representation in CS, can create obstacles to a fully welcoming community. The increasing presence of affinity groups allows for students from underrepresented groups to find a place in the community, but some students say there is still more to be done. While no one student or voice can be representative of the experiences of everyone in the University’s largest department, stories from CS students illuminate both a sense of camaraderie and obstacles that can hinder a sense of belonging.

Collaboration policy makes CS intimidating

The strict no-collaboration policy existing in some of the intro sequences within the department is an area of contention among students and faculty. The policy, which varies from class to class, can prevent students from working together on specific coding projects — ranging from just exams and quizzes to all projects in the course. The intent of the policies, as described in many syllabi, is to ensure that students learn on their own, but many who have taken the classes said that the collaboration policy is isolating and makes it difficult to meet people in the department.

Two students, Serrano and Donnie Sahyouni ’21, said that they choose to take the CS 17/CS 18 intro sequence because there was more of a focus on pair projects, as opposed to the CS 15/16 sequence, which has a stricter no collaboration policy.

The text of the policy explains that the course does not have any exams or quizzes to test individual mastery, and so it depends entirely on project and homework grades for evaluation. This makes the policy especially important to ensure individual learning, according to the text of the policy.

Marlene Goetz ’21, who took CS 15 and 16, similarly said that the collaboration policy made finding a community within the department more difficult during her first year. “In CS 15 and 16, I was less engaged with other students in the class because I was usually working alone,” she added.

Professors can enforce a no-collaboration policy through a software called Measurement of Software Similarity, or MOSS. The software cross-checks the code of students on assignments and spots similarities in coding strings, according to Deputy Dean of the College Christopher Dennis, who works on academic code cases. He said that of the 54 people found guilty of violating the academic code in the 2017-18 academic year, the last year for which data is available, 22 violations were in computer science classes.

“I think it’s strict, and MOSS is relentless,” Dennis said about the no-collaboration policy. “CS students need to be careful.”

He mentioned that in most cases he has seen, students have been aware that they violated the code, thanks to improvements in education about the specifics of the policy in classes like CS 15.

“The department’s overall outlook on collaboration is toxic and counterproductive,” said Jack Wrenn GS, a PhD candidate within the department who studies computer science education. “There’s a bevy of evidence showing that the best way to learn something is to teach others about it, and the collaboration policy here effectively silences that opportunity. It instills among students a state of terror where the students following the policy actively avoid doing things that would help them learn, and they live in a state of great stress.”

But while students may be prevented from collaborating with each other, they rely heavily on partnerships, learning and collaboration with Teaching Assistants in the department, The Herald previously reported. The collaboration policy also encourages students to turn to TAs for help, support and partnerships.

Wrenn added that there are examples of classes within the department that have been able to completely incorporate partner projects into the curriculum without sacrificing the integrity of the course, naming CSCI 1570: “The Design and Analysis of Algorithms” taught in previous years by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Paul Valiant.

“There’s a lot of ideological discussion around the collaboration policy. Some faculty are really for it and others not so much,” said Financial and Outreach Coordinator Laura Dobler, an administrator in the department who works on diversity initiatives. “There’s a lot of active discussion around how might the collaboration policy be affecting students feelings of belonging and feelings of isolation in the department.”

Dobler also emphasized the greater effect the collaboration policy can have on underrepresented groups in computer science, who might find the environment in CS classes all the more intimidating due to strict guidelines about working with others.

“We need to identify more comprehensive ways to really work on that retention issue and that initial shock coming into these intro sequences, with massive classes and the collaboration policy,” Dobler said, adding that it might help students if professors were more transparent about what is and is not a violation of the policy.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Tom Doeppner stressed the potential benefits of a strict no-collaboration policy, highlighting the importance of individual work in student learning.

“It’s felt for (some CS) course(s) that doing work on your own is extremely important … It’s sometimes a fine line between discussing the big ideas and getting into the project,” he said.

Department Aims to be More Welcoming to Underrepresented Groups

Since Dobler joined the CS department in January 2016, she has seen a major shift in the way faculty look at issues of diversity and inclusion.

“When I first started here the biggest thing that I heard from students is that they felt as though the faculty were not listening to them,” Dobler said. “And I can say that I’ve seen the culture shift in the past three years, whereby instead of folks being defensive, I think this department in particular really embraces change.”

According to the department website, half of new incoming PhD candidates in 2019 are women — a new high for the department.

In the past few years, affinity groups within the department have grown, working to facilitate a welcoming community for underrepresented computer science students. Women in Computer Science works to increase the participation of women in the field, offering a mentorship program and organizing events throughout the semester.

Students in the department can also look to Mosaic+ for support, which is a student-run organization within the department focused on making underrepresented minority students feel welcome in the CS community. 

Mosaic+ currently has 40 to 50 core members and a GroupMe of over 100 current students and recent alums. The group, formed in 2015, runs a peer mentorship program and a summer program for about 15 rising first-years that helps underrepresented students adjust to the department.

“I think the biggest thing we value is community,” said Stephanie Alvarado ’20, one of Mosaic+’s co-coordinators.  “That’s what we try and build, and as our community members come forward with things (or) places they feel could use some more support, we try and accommodate that.”

“It really humanizes the whole CS experience, from it being isolating to having a space with people who are more familiar,” Serrano said of the group. “I think it shows that they got through it and I can get through it too.”

Mosaic+ also runs events throughout the semester, such as Technical Tuesdays and Whiteboard Wednesdays, that help students with coding job interview preparation and assist students who are applying for TA positions within the department. Alvarado added that Mosaic+ has been successful in making TA staff within the department more diverse.

“One reason I decided to pick CS over engineering at the end of my first year was because I felt that the CS department had a stronger community in Mosaic+,” said Brantley Leapheart ’21. He said he had taken computer science and engineering tracks concurrently in his first year. “I had a lot of friends through the transition program who were doing engineering and CS, but I felt like Mosaic+ was providing a better support group in the department,” he added.

Alvarado stressed that faculty have been very supportive of Mosaic+, helping the group find extra space after the current Mosaic+ room in the Center for Information Technology became too small and responding to any requests. She said a next step would be to try and make the department’s faculty more diverse. “We’ve made quite a difference in TA staffs, and think that it would be good if we could make a difference in the faculty, so that students can see people in academia who look like them and are from similar backgrounds,” she said.

Aside from student run groups, the department has also added student advocates — among the recent additions are positions focused on health and wellness, diversity and inclusion and outreach. Ten students work on diversity and inclusion, four students on health and wellness and one student, Bilal Lafta ’20, on outreach with community organizations in Providence.

Lafta is working to create a web page that will centralize all of the department’s outreach initiatives with local schools and partners, while diversity advocates act as sounding boards and connect students to resources on campus.

While computer science is becoming more welcoming, Dobler said that there is still room for progress.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said. “There’s still a lot of issues from a climate perspective here. I think there’s some inconsistency among some of our policies and practices among classes that can be hard to navigate.”

Dobler mentioned that the large class sizes and intimidating policies around collaboration carry the threat of inducing imposter syndrome in underrepresented students without prior CS experience. Imposter syndrome, Dobler said, is the feeling “that you’re going to be exposed as a fraud or feeling that you’re not going to measure up to other students.”

Doeppner also said that there were not enough available computers on campus for low-income students to complete projects, increasing the stress and burden on those who cannot afford a laptop.

While the department works to address feelings of stress and isolation, underrepresentation and its policy on collaboration, students and faculty alike emphasize the strong community and camaraderie within the department.

“There’s a very definite sense of community and people tend to know each other,” Doeppner said. “Somebody might be your TA in one class and peer in another class. … With increased size … there’s still the case that it’s a strong community, just a much larger community than we had before.”