No matter what college you attend, be it an Ivy League university, a large public university or a smaller public school like the College, it is incredibly difficult as an undergraduate to get hands-on experience in careers in your field.
In the College’s computer science department, however, associate professor Ursula Wolz has changed the face of undergraduate research opportunities.
Wolz has initiated a cooperative program between the Hopewell Valley School District and the College’s computer science department.
As a parent in the Hopewell Valley School District, Wolz began the program by volunteering to assist Hopewell Valley schools in creating user-friendly curriculum maps that would allow teachers, administrators and, on some level, parents, to have access to the goals of the curriculum and how well each course met those goals.
The basic idea behind the mapping program was to develop a database that would allow the staff of the Hopewell Valley Schools to look at analyses of their curricula, their effectiveness and their progression.
For example, as Wolz said in a report submitted to the National Educational Computing Conference, “a principal could study the progression of math skills from the first to fifth grades, or see where, in the overall curriculum, Native American culture is studied. A second grade teacher can make notes on how a hands-on science lab fared … and share that information with her colleague at another elementary school in the district.”
The problem with this system is that any Hopewell Valley staff member wishing to get a specific analysis of a portion of the curriculum must know how to pose his or her question in database query – a skill which most elementary school teachers and staff do not possess.
This is where the College’s computer science students come in.
Hopewell Valley staff members pose their questions, in plain English, to undergraduate student researchers at the College. The student then translates the question into database query and retrieves the necessary information for the staff member.
Although the turnover time for this process can be as long as two days, it does not seem to be a problem, as immediate results are not necessary for a long-term curriculum analysis.
Wolz started working on this program three years ago, but did not have enough free time to assume the extra responsibility of implementing the entire program into the school district. However, now that Wolz is on sabbatical, she has been able to spend more time working with the staff of the Hopewell Valley District.
As a whole, the collaboration between Hopewell Valley and the College has provided tremendous opportunities for undergraduates to get practical experience in their field, as well as for the staff of Hopewell Valley to make significant improvements in their curriculum.
“The very exciting part of this project from (the College’s) perspective is that students in computer science, and next year in the new interactive multimedia program, are able to do community based research and apply the skills learned in (their) courses … to a real problem, with a real clientele,” Wolz said.