Brown CS News

Mosaic+ And Brown CS Launch A New Program To Help URM Students Transition To Studying CS


According to Jonathan Powell, who has just finished leading the new Mosaic+ Transition Program, which helps underrepresented minority (URM) students prepare for studying computer science at Brown University, his experience as a new CS student was shared by many of his peers.

“I was interested in the program,” he says, “because I heard a lot of second-year URM students talking about the struggles that they’d had. The academics were part of it, but even the small things, like finding where labs are and setting up your account, they’re all barriers. CS has a fundamentally different learning curve, and it starts very early. For many students, their experience in high school helped build fundamental skills in math, writing, and other areas that they need for college courses. But for computer science, very few schools have a curriculum that helps build that foundation. That’s what we’re trying to do.”  

In the spring of 2015, Mosaic+ began working on what they call a “two-tier solution centered around the social and academic issues” faced by URM students: a Transition Program that would take place just before their arrival at Brown, and a Mentoring Program that would continue afterward. According to Mosaic+ co-coordinators Nifemi Madarikan and Chelse Steele, the student organization “seeks to equip these students with the resources, skills, and support structure that will allow them to thrive at Brown and become the next generation of computer scientists from the moment they step onto campus”.

A great deal of research followed. With assistance from Department Chair Ugur Cetintemel, Vice-Chair Tom Doeppner, and Professor Shriram Krishnamurthi, Mosaic+ studied programs at University of Michigan, Stanford University, and other schools to find models of engagement and useful best practices. They also partnered with Brown’s New Scientist Catalyst summer program, which helps incoming URM students in science, technology, engineering, and math, but doesn’t focus on CS.

“It was really Chelse and Nifemi’s brainchild,” says Laura Dobler, the Brown CS Financial and Outreach Coordinator, who works extensively with Mosaic+ on diversity-related initiatives. “The Transition Program is a comprehensive solution for so many different types of problems. For URM students, it’s not just about helping them past the learning curve of doing research, it’s about creating a community, leveling the playing field, providing mentors and resources, and doing everything we can to make their experience more typical.”

Thirteen students arrived in August as the program’s first cohort. Their mornings were spent on the Transition Program’s technical curriculum, designed to introduce them to functional and object-oriented programming concepts, build technical skill, and expose them to various CS applications. It included lectures, tech talks and demos, labs, and problem sets, culminating in the creation of a unique app.

“We wanted students to create something they could really use,” Jonathan explains, “to learn about databases and JavaScript but have a product at the end and an ‘I made this’ moment.” Many volunteers contributed to the effort, with Shriram, Elbert Wang, and Abdul Raziq Tabish playing a key role by developing the curriculum and the online instructional component. Jewel Brown and Ebube Chuba both gave talks on student groups, academic technology, and interdisciplinary possibilities with computer science. Purvi Goel created a Pokémon Go-inspired augmented reality tour of the CIT, and Joanna Simwinga documented the entire program, taking pictures and providing support.

Afternoons provided a bit of a break in the form of the non-technical curriculum, which prepared students for other aspects of academic life, such as Brown CS culture and campus resources. Field trip destinations included the Boston Museum of Science, the Google headquarters in Boston, and New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock. Jonathan credits Laura as well as Lynsey Ford of the Science Center for the “administrative acrobatics” of many emails sent, phone calls made, and releases and waivers tracked down.

“It was really a success,” he says. “Even as we were doing it, we were thinking of things to do differently next year, like making sure that we have all the faculty members who teach intro courses join us as speakers, but I’m proud that we not only covered things like programming and coursework but also gave students the full set of skills they need to do well.”

“This is Mosaic+ really giving back to the next generation,” Laura adds. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.” In the future, Brown CS is hoping to build on the success of this program by extending it or creating similar programs for students from other historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) as well.

“I’m grateful to everyone who jumped in with their spare time and engaged with our participants,” says Jonathan. “The students told me again and again how much they valued hearing about our experiences and seeing a community designed just for them start sprouting up around them. Now, with the Mentoring Program getting started, we’re going to take that skill-building and support to a whole new level.”