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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Growing Computer Science Tutor Community Reunites at UC San Diego

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Computer science tutor alumni and current tutors reunited on campus to celebrate the hallmark program. Photos by Alex Matthews

San Diego, CA, May 16, 2018 -- More than 170 current and alumni computer science tutors reunited at UC San Diego in April 2018 to celebrate a program that has become a hallmark of the department and a model for the rest of campus. Computer science tutors are students selected through a careful screening process for their understanding of computing subjects and their ability to provide other students with an effective learning experience in small group settings.  

“You are a peer group that’s teaching peers, and it’s well known in the education literature that peer-to-peer learning is an effective learning model,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “This is what makes computer science on our campus such a dynamic department and discipline. Let’s find a way to scale this tutor model to other departments across campus.”

Tutors are popular in lower division, introductory classes where aggregate class enrollments are high. Typically, there is a tutor for every five or six students in undergraduate laboratories. They actively seek out students to help and in doing so, cultivate a culture of cooperation in a learning environment. The tutor program has now grown to hire more than 500 tutors annually, many of whom tutor for more than one class throughout the year.

With more than 3,000 tutor alumni in high profile industry and academia positions across the country and the world, the program not only benefits the students being tutored but the tutors themselves who gain leadership and teaching skills. In addition, the program has heightened the profile of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Department at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Upon graduation, tutors have much higher levels of engagement in department activities, return often for departmental events and mentor graduating seniors with career advice.

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Chancellor Pradeep Khosla thanked tutor alumni for making computer science at UC San Diego such a dynamic discipline.

CSE’s faculty and lecturers such as Gary Gillespie, Rick Ord, Susan Marx, Thomas Powell and Paul Cao, who handle many of the introductory computer science courses, are among the most active mentors for CSE tutors. They train tutors to staff labs, grade quizzes and tests, and help students with assignments outside of class time. Most tutors work in the program for one to three years, tutoring up to three courses at a time, and develop a deep sense of community through this shared experience.

“Thank you for continuing to care about our department,” said computer science and engineering professor and department chair Dean Tullsen in his remarks welcoming the former tutors back to campus. “Tutor alumni continue to stay connected to the department, continue to pay attention to what we’re doing and are hiring our students, which is great.”

The event included a panel with four alumni tutors, including Morgan Cundiff, who worked in industry for two years before returning to UC San Diego in January to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. She echoed what many others said: the tutor program is about much more than teaching.

“As a tutor you build a sense of community,” Cundiff said. “When I took the CSE12 course I had only ever taken CSE11, I had no programming background whatsoever— so I think even as a student I benefited from the tutor program a lot. And now I’m here in San Diego with 10 of my friends who I met because they were my tutors and I tutored with them the next year. I think that just goes to show this community doesn’t end when you graduate.”

Gary Gillespie, a former computer science tutor at UC San Diego who started the tutor training program as a lecturer in the computer science department in 2000 and still sits at its helm, said the program has become larger than he ever envisioned. At its core, though, it’s all about providing students with an opportunity.

“Being a tutor was a life changing experience for me,” Gillespie said. “Before I was a tutor I was bagging groceries and working graveyard shifts at a supermarket and I was just looking for a change—and what a change I got.”

Change is a theme that Aaron Liao, the current president of the CSE alumni board, also brought up in his remarks. He reminded the current and former tutors in the audience that through the hard work required to teach computer science fundamentals, “you have forever changed the course of someone’s life. So pat yourselves on the back.”

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More than 170 current and alumni tutors joined in the celebration.

One tutor alumnus who has changed lives in many different ways is Taner Halicioglu. He is an active member of the CSE community where he teaches, works with the tutors and much more. He has been incredibly generous over the years, giving his time and resources to strengthen the CSE tutor program, the computer science department and the university. Most notable among his many gifts is his donation of $75M to establish the Halicioglu Data Science Institute (HDSI) at UC San Diego.

“Because of the creation of the Halicioglu Data Science Institute, you’re going to see that the world’s perception of what UC San Diego does in computer science is going to be much bigger than strictly computer science,” Khosla said.

Erik Buchanan, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at UC San Diego and is now the head of relevance for Hiring Products at LinkedIn after stints at Google and Websense, said having the skills of both an engineer and data scientist would be a distinct advantage to students.

“Thinking like an engineer is a really important way of understanding the world, but it’s very different than thinking like a scientist,” Buchanan said. “And data science is fundamentally a science, not an engineering discipline. You’re so much more effective whenever there are two disciplines in an industry and no one really spanning that gap— if you’re one of those few people that can, you’re several times more productive to the company.”

Alvin Chen, a data scientist at Microsoft who earned his bachelor’s in computer science at UC San Diego, agreed that there’s a need for people with a deep understanding of both engineering and data science to solve today’s pressing challenges. He speaks from personal experience when he says that engineers sometimes tackle data problems from the wrong angle, working to try and solve a problem instead of understand the situation and form a hypothesis first.

“I was working on understanding some publication data, and saw a significant drop over a certain time period,” Chen said. “I thought it was some issue with my system so I kept on digging and digging, not realizing that that was how the data really was. That’s beyond engineering—it has to do with if you’re aware of social aspects and are able to create and test hypotheses. Those skills from the HDSI will be really useful.”

The cross-disciplinary Halicioglu Data Sciences Institute is now the campus hub for data science. Among many other activities, the Institute is helping to train students in the latest data-science techniques and helping to transform the research of scholars who are now limited by the need to make sense of the massive amounts of data generated from their research. Rajesh Gupta, a professor of computer science and engineering, and Jeffrey Elman, professor of cognitive science, are the co-directors of the new Institute.

 “Our alumni give us identity; they are a reflection of our success as well as a glimpse into the future. Going by what I see here, our future is brighter still,” said Gupta.

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