As all Grinnellians know, it’s important to use what you learn to make a difference in your community. In Grinnell’s computer science department, the students in the Team Software Development for Community Organizations class are using what they learn in class to benefit local nonprofits.

“We think our students should understand the ways in which their computing skills can make a positive difference in the world,” says Samuel A. Rebelsky, professor of computer science. “At the same time, it’s important for students to learn how to work with clients who know what they want done, but not how it can be done.”

Helping the Local Food Pantry

Students choose a project at the beginning of the semester, such as creating a website that shows the current needs of the Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food pantry so people know what to donate. Another project the students have worked on is making an online resource portal to help MICA’s clients quickly find the support they need for food, housing, and jobs.

Zoe Wolter ’16, who worked on the MICA resource portal project, says that the class was a great way to get a feel for what she can do with the skills she’s developed at Grinnell. “Getting to actually apply what we’ve learned in class to a real project really expanded my knowledge of what opportunities are out there,” she says. “It really opened my mind to possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before.”

Developing Marketable Skills

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16, in his work on MICA’s resource portal, developed vital skills for communicating with clients who aren’t fluent in computer science language. “I found that it’s best to have them draw pictures and diagrams of what they want so that we can see what we need to do and there’s no confusion,” says Owusu-Asare. “That’s something I couldn’t have learned just sitting in class.”

Having worked on a large project with actual clients has also been useful for students seeking jobs in the tech industry. John Brady ’16, who developed the food bank site for MICA, found that his experience with that project came in handy for interviews. “Having a project that you can talk about that shows some actual real world experience working for clients was fantastic, because projects just for school just don’t have the same weight,” Brady says. He recently accepted a job offer from Amazon.

Receiving Support from Alumni Mentors

Cassie Schmitz talking with students in the courseIn addition to in-class learning, students also get support from alumni mentors who are now working in fields where they do the same kind of work the students are doing. Mentors come to campus once a semester to meet with students and Skype with them every few weeks to support them and answer questions.

“It’s just nice to have someone who went through the computer science department and is now working in the field,” says Owusu-Asare. “You see that they’re doing all these cool things, and it makes me excited for what I’ll do in the future.” Owusu-Asare plans to work as a software developer for Goldman-Sachs after graduating.

The class also supports the College’s commitment to staying connected to the greater Grinnell community. “In a lot of other college towns there’s a big divide between the town and the college, but Grinnell is really committed to bridging that gap,” says Cassie Schmitz ’05, who has been a mentor for the class for the past two years. “Students are encouraged to really engage meaningfully with the community, and this class is an important part of that engagement.”

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16 is a computer science and physics double major from Kumasi, Ghana.

John Brady ’16 is from Rosco, Ill., and is a double major in computer science and mathematics.

Zoe Wolter ’16 is a computer science and theatre double major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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