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UCSB Looks To The Brown CS UTA Program For Best Practices

Click the link that follows for more news about Andy van Dam and the Brown CS Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) program.

"Even today," says Diba Mirza, faculty in Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), "there is a prevailing assumption that only graduate students are qualified to work as Teaching Assistants in undergraduate courses. Brown CS proves that assumption wrong, and that was very interesting to us."

Diba joined UCSB in 2017, and one of her first tasks was to develop their Computer Science Undergraduate Tutor (UT) Program. Previously, she explains, only graduate students served as teaching assistants, and her department was looking to create a model that allowed undergraduates to take part as well. After a pilot with six UTs in 2017, the program doubled in size the following semester, and now includes more than thirty tutors. Hoping for more growth, and inspired by the Brown CS UTA program (Professor Andy van Dam of Brown CS is a member of the UCSB Department of Computer Science's Advisory Board), Diba came to Providence last summer to learn more, meeting with students, UTAs, Andy, and other faculty members. 

"Andy started the UTA program at Brown CS in the 1960s, and amazingly, he's still part of it," Diba says. "That's so rare! It's a huge learning opportunity, and I really wanted to benefit from all those years of experience."

UCSB has more than 450 undergraduate students majoring on Computer Science, she explains, with another 200 or more in Computer Engineering. Much like at Brown, interest in CS courses is increasing exponentially, with strong demand even from students who don't intend to major in the subject, but one key difference is that certain introductory courses have an attendance cap, restricting their enrollment.

"We want to grow our program, Diba says, "but it's a complicated, campus-level discussion about what undergraduates can and can't do. We had a lot of faculty and student support, so I came to Brown to see what might be involved to scale our program and what mechanisms would allow it to scale successfully."

One of the key points that Diba took away from the visit was the use of different roles within the program: UTAs, Head TAs, and Meta TAs. "All of them were so deeply engaged," she says. "I asked them how they run labs, how they train other TAs, and I could see the care and attention. They had been very carefully selected and they were really able to take charge without constant supervision, with a real sense of ownership. For instance, I was very interested to find out how involved the HTAs are with interviewing. Even if we don't emulate this exact model at UCSB, it's definitely going to inform what we do."

Diba was also impressed by the week of intense training that helps prepare UTAs just before the semester begins. UCSB's tutors are required to take a "Teaching Computer Science" course but she believes there's a lot to be gained from having at least some of the content delivered as Brown CS does, from students to students. Diba says that she also appreciates the close attention from faculty: "I was fortunate to hear Andy's signature address to his UTAs, in which he not only sets expectations but also explores themes of professionalism and empathy in a way that freshmen can relate to. Other faculty I spoke to support the program wholeheartedly, but I like how they keep a critical eye, making sure that students don't overwork themselves, and maintain the right balance of ownership for the course."    

According to Diba, one of the greatest similarities between UCSB and Brown CS is student enthusiasm for helping their peers: "Our students are very excited about making an impact and improving the experience of students that follow after them." And the focus, she maintains, is much larger than a single course or even a single degree.

"It's about mentorship with lasting impact," she says. "First, you have a terrific educator like Andy mentoring the HTAs, and that continues from the HTAs to the UTAs, and then to the students. It's true professional development: for example, if they go on to grad school, they've learned to do the kind of meticulous, error-free work that matters when working with a faculty member. We're really trying to help our students succeed not just in the short term but over many years." 

At this point, Diba says, UCSB is close to being able to expand the use of Undergraduate Tutors across a series of first-year courses taught by multiple instructors. "We're looking to scale," she says, "and Brown CS has been a great inspiration for how to run a very beneficial program at a very large scale.  Ultimately, we hope that any of our courses that would like to include UTs should be able to include them. That's our goal."

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.