U-M, WCC will share programming course

Faculty at the University of Michigan School of Information and Washtenaw Community College will collaborate on an open-source course with the goal of encouraging more students to consider a U-M Bachelor of Science in Information degree.

The two institutions have teamed up to offer WCC students, particularly those underrepresented in STEM fields, an introductory class in the popular programming language Python that UMSI uses as a gateway course to its degree.

"I'm really excited about giving students a chance to look at different options," said Michael Galea, a computer information systems instructor at WCC who will teach the course. "We're hopefully going to find students interested in a different career path than what we have currently."

Galea said that many WCC graduates go into areas like computer science and cybersecurity, as a result of current partnerships. The BSI offers something new, he said, as the degree is focused on information analysis, user experience design, and social media analysis and design.

Historically a graduate school, UMSI began offering a bachelor's in 2014. The UMSI major is an upper-class program, meaning students enter the program in their junior year. Those already on U-M's campus have the ability, however, to take the introductory course as a prerequisite. A good understanding of programming in Python is an important foundation for future learning in the BSI.

School of Information leaders wanted to figure out how to make the transition easier for students coming from outside the U-M system. Program Director Barry Fishman said they also wanted to "grow the program's socioeconomic diversity and expand the range of pathways to STEM fields like information science," so they turned to WCC for input and potential collaboration.

Barry Fishman

"The BSI program is trying to be as friendly as possible to students coming from all backgrounds, and we are putting special effort into smoothing the path for a student looking to transfer to U-M from community college," Fishman said.

The course, created by Paul Resnick, the Michael D. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Information and associate dean for research and faculty affairs, uses an open-source online textbook, complete with interactive exercises for students to practice programing.

The book has embedded multiple-choice questions, samples of code that are mixed up for students to rearrange into proper order, and exercises that allow them to create and run code.

Some lecture material can be delivered through online videos, and the use of a course management system allows for interactive discussions and activities around the content. U-M uses the course management system Canvas but WCC was able to integrate it with WCC's Blackboard system.

The beauty behind open-source sharing, Resnick said, is that instructors at WCC can pick and choose the elements that work best for them.

"We've seen the power of sharing of open-source, not just for software but for other content," he said. "Python is increasingly being used in many places. It's easy to get started with, it's a real programing language and it's easier than other languages. WCC has been interested in moving toward Python and they wanted to experiment with us."

Susan Dentel, a WCC faculty member in the Life Sciences Department, believes exposure to Python will give the students in a new STEM program a leg up.

"Having this experience will put them in a good position for the job market and for future research," she said.

This story originally posted by the U-M News Service on December 21, 2017.