Last semester, the hundreds of students in CSCI: 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” — better known by the moniker CS15 — met a new member in the course teaching team: a chatbot teaching assistant called GPTA.
GPTA is the brainchild of CS15 TA Brandon Diaz ’24 and Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam and was mainly developed by Diaz. According to Van Dam, it’s a version of ChatGPT with “guard rails” designed for students. Van Dam stated that Diaz made slight alterations to the ChatGPT interface so that GPTA would answer “conceptual questions with code examples if asked, but (would not) generate code if the questions were too assignment-specific.”
According to Van Dam, “students could still get coding examples (from GPTA), but only for conceptual questions, not for questions pertaining directly to the assignment.”
According to Diaz, almost every student signed up for GPTA even though the program was not a course requirement. There were approximately 416 GPTA users throughout the semester who asked the program 5,909 questions in total. EdStem — another educational assistance platform — received less than half the amount of questions, Diaz wrote.
The program was sparked by Diaz and Van Dam’s perception that bans on generative AI tools like ChatGPT in the classroom are “ineffective and not a progressive approach to the growing tech world,” Diaz wrote in an email to The Herald. “Since (generative AI) is so powerful, so accessible and nearly impossible to detect at this point in its history, we decided that prohibition of the technology’s use was far less effective than regulation of its use.”
After emailing other introductory computer science professors from peer universities, Diaz and Van Dam found that “many other professors were also in the dark and had very little idea about a solid path forward,” Diaz wrote.
“We decided to forge along with our own plan,” he added.
CS15 Head TA Sarah Onderdonk ’25, a former Herald senior staff writer, stated that while generative AI can be useful for professionals, students in introductory computer science classes like CS15 “need to be able to actually understand these concepts before they can use generative AI because generative AI is imperfect.”
“If you don't know the fundamentals, you can't debug what the (generative AI) produces,” Van Dam said.
According to Van Dam, submitting code written by the original ChatGPT for any assignment is a violation of the Academic Code. According to an Aug. 31 letter to the Brown community by Provost Frank Doyle, “Any unapproved use of AI to complete assignments would be covered by Brown’s Academic Code and Academic Code, Graduate Student Edition.”
To make sure students don’t misuse GPTA, the TAs monitor the responses the chatbot receives, Onderdonk said. This also helps the developers learn more about the program and the types of questions students frequently ask.
Marco Villamizar ‘26, who took the course in fall 2023, had a positive experience with GPTA. “I'm somebody who has a pretty tight schedule, and I don't have time to be working on an assignment the entire week and going in and out of (office) hours.”
“GPTA was a really helpful tool for me,” Villamizar said.
Leah Koritz is a Senior Staff Writer covering the student government beat under University News. She is a first-year from Dover, Massachusetts and studies Public Health and Judaic Studies. Leah can yas sdrow sdrawkcab (now read that backwards).