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Virtual Commitment and Connection: Service and Computer Science

by Gwen McNamara, ​Pace Center for Civic Engagement

For the third year in a row, Princeton University undergraduate students are helping to teach a version of Princeton’s computer science course, COS 126, at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez (UPRM) in collaboration with Dr. Alan Kaplan, from Princeton’s Department of Computer Science. 

Screen shot of a Zoom meeting with eight people.  From top left to bottom right, Neyci Gutiérrez Valencia, Alan Kaplan, Jennifer Secrest, Alexis Sursock, Allison Chou, Eduardo Fernandez, Maya Rozenshteyn, and Julia Douvas.
Dr. Alan Kaplan and rising sophomores Allison Chou, Julia Douvas, Eduardo Fernandez, Neyci Gutiérrez Valencia, Maya Rozenshteyn, Jennifer Secrest, and Alexis Sursock connect via a video meeting. Photo courtesy of Alan Kaplan.

However, unlike years past, this time both Princeton and UPRM students aren’t meeting face-to-face. Given the global COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning have shifted to a remote model. From June 8 to July 24, each Princeton University teaching assistant supervises between five and six UPRM students in a video conference session. 

“Obviously we would prefer to be teaching in person,” said Kaplan. “But despite being online, there was a significant demand for COS 126. Many of the students at URPM were concerned about a ‘virtual fall’ so this course provided a good opportunity to get a head start on their studies. Plus, like many students, the lock down in Puerto Rico curtailed many summer jobs and other activities. In addition, many students have found our summer course very rewarding.”  

Fatima Puig, a UPRM student who took the course during summer 2017, illustrates the impact the course can have. “I'm really glad the course is being taught once again,” she said. “I'm sure I've said this before, but it's the reason why I found my love for computer science. I'm so happy to hear it'll be taught despite the current global circumstances.”

While teaching and connecting virtually is a challenge, Kaplan is proud of the rapport and level of engagement the seven Princeton students -- Allison Chou, Julia Douvas, Eduardo Fernandez, Neyci Gutiérrez Valencia, Maya Rozenshteyn, Jennifer Secrest, and Alexis Sursock (all rising sophomores) -- have been able to build with UPRM students. 

“Teaching and learning online is not easy,” said Kaplan. “We are doing our best to build on our experience from the past to offer a better experience to our students.”

Overall, Kaplan acknowledges that the collaboration between Princeton and UPRM wouldn’t be possible without a long list of supporters, including Dean Bienvenido Vélez at UPRM, and the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, Service Focus, the Office of Information Technology, and Department of Computer Science at Princeton. 

For many of the Princeton students, the experience has been an opportunity to build upon their interest in and study of computer science during the academic year. 

“Having enjoyed COS126 a lot in my spring semester, I knew I wanted to help out with future offerings of this course,” said Sursock. “This internship certainly hit that out of the park. Gaining the experience of holding your own precept as a rising sophomore, having access to administrative features on grading platforms, and simply being able to help out students in Puerto Rico is an all-around phenomenal experience and I'm very glad I applied.” 

Rozenshteyn agrees. “I’m very passionate about computer science, as well as bridging educational inequities, and I thought that teaching at UPRM was the perfect opportunity to combine these two passions,” she said. “Also, I’m interested in potentially pursuing a career in academia, and I thought this teaching experience would give me a better idea of what professorship is like.”

“I started learning computer science in the spring and fell in love with the possibilities it showed me,” added Gutiérrez Valencia. “Not only was it a good way to keep practicing what I’d learned, but it was also a good way to continue teaching and helping others get interested in this exciting field of study.”

While physical distance has added a new challenge to the mix, the Princeton students say they have still been able to find ways to make meaningful connections. 

“For many of [the students in my class], this class is their first experience with a college class,” said Douvas. “I just finished my first year so adjusting to college classes and college life in general is still fresh in my mind. While I have computer science knowledge and I’m there to teach them, I’m also their peer and I can relate to a lot of struggles they are experiencing. To me, connecting to students in that way has been the most meaningful part of this experience. It’s been very rewarding to not only act as their teacher but also their advocate and mentor.”

“Creating meaningful connections over Zoom is well known to be difficult,” added Chou. “Puerto Rico’s own spotty power grid, a lingering consequence of Hurricane Maria that hit the island almost three years ago, only exacerbates this problem. When I held my first Zoom class, I felt defeated, empathizing with my professors of this past semester. Yet despite the challenges of Zoom and the threat of spontaneous power outages, the students have been extremely determined and eager to learn. Together, we have been adapting alongside one another, slowly getting the hang of virtual learning.”

In addition, the Princeton students say they are often learning as much, if not more, from the UPRM students. 

Jennifer Secrest sitting in front of a laptop at a dining room table in her home.  There are notebooks on the table, and a cat sitting on a cat tree in the background.

Jennifer Secrest teaching class remotely from home.  Photo courtesy of Jennifer Secrest.

“Though I would have loved to have been able to interact with my students and be exposed to the culture of Puerto Rico in-person, connection with my students has not been lost with this online format, and this may be one of my favorite parts of this internship,” said Secrest. “It’s always enjoyable when, after hours of talking with a student one-on-one, they have a revelation and finally understand and get excited about the material. Most of my favorite moments from this internship come from experiences like this, but one interaction that sticks out ..., is when I helped a student for about two hours straight, then we ended up staying on the call for an extra half an hour just talking (not about computer science, just casual conversation about our lives). It was at this moment that I realized the joy of connecting with my students.”

“Getting to know my students and interacting with them on a personal level, seeing them not just as students but as friends, has been immensely enjoyable,” added Fernandez. “I’ve lived in the Dominican Republic my whole life, so it has been easy for me to relate to fellow residents of another Caribbean island. ... Overall, I’m glad my experience teaching has been as fun as it has been intellectually engaging.”

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