Willing to Experiment

Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2014 8:41 am

In fall 2014, students enrolling in the newly redesigned course Computer Science 322: Team Software Development for Community Organizations will help test a new approach to alumni participation in the curriculum.

Janet Davis, associate professor of computer science, has redesigned the course to incorporate alumni mentors with industry experience. Small project teams of students will get the benefit of practical advice and assistance from alumni.

The effort comes with the support of the Alumni Relations staff and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, which actively engage alumni in key campus programs and services.

Ian Young ’08 thinks it’s a really good idea. A computer science major, Young went into industry right after graduation. He’s a Ruby on Rails web developer and has been a freelancer since October 2013.

“There was definitely a lot for me to learn in industry,” Young says. “I had to apply what I learned at Grinnell.”

Students Will Benefit from Alumni Industry Experience

Young was one of the first students Davis got to know when she came to Grinnell in 2006. It was a conversation with him that made her realize that alumni mentors could do more than advise on the technical side of things.

Young explains, “What makes you valuable in the real world is a lot more about what you can build, your skill with tools, how well you communicate with clients and understand what they need.”

Davis is enthusiastic about inviting young alums — those who have been out of college for five to 10 years — back to campus. They remember well what it was like to be students themselves. Plus current students can relate to them.

A History of Bringing Alums to Campus

Asking alumni to share their expertise with students isn’t new, however. Doug Caulkins, professor emeritus of anthropology, was one of the pioneers in inviting alums to help with courses. He did this through Creative Careers: Learning from Alumni offerings, in which alums from many different fields come to campus and talk about their careers with students. In computer science, Professor Samuel Rebelsky also has taught classes featuring alumni.

Davis’s course is taking the approach even further. Computer Science 321 will be the first regular academic course that incorporates alumni expertise into the curriculum.

Innovation Grant Funds Pilot

It’s the first step in a three-year pilot project funded by a college Innovation Fund grant. The Fund supports promising ideas proposed by faculty, staff, and students for new approaches to teaching and scholarship, as well as student-initiated proposals that enrich campus life and learning.

The grant pays for a part-time staff person to work with faculty members across campus. This person will consult with faculty members about how alumni expertise can be effectively integrated into courses. The staff member will also handle research and the logistics involved in getting alumni to campus.

Mark Peltz expects the hire to come this summer. Peltz is the Daniel '77 and Patricia Jipp Finkelman '80 Dean in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service.

Peltz hopes the outcomes of the project will be so profound that the program will continue. Alumni bring knowledge and experience that complement what the College’s world-class faculty offers, he adds.

They also show vividly the achievement that can come for those with a Grinnell education. Peltz says, “Alumni engagement opens windows for students to see what graduates of a liberal arts college can do.”