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Computer Coding and the HumanitiesA Match Made at Vassar

How does learning computer coding benefit students who aren’t computer science majors? Just ask Mendel Jiménez ’20, a Greek and Roman studies major, who joined more than a dozen fellow Vassar students for a unique summer class opportunity—a six-week intensive computer coding class.

Students in the summer coding class spent much of their mornings learning new material from Assistant Professor Jason Waterman.

“I don’t think of myself as a STEM person,” Jiménez says. “[Coding] opens up a different world of possibilities.”

Computer Science Department faculty have had an ongoing conversation about how computer science fits within a liberal arts education.

“I’m always looking for opportunities when we can have greater outreach outside the Computer Science Department,” says Jason Waterman, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, who taught the course.

The class was advertised on campus during the spring semester, and students who were selected to enroll in the course received room and board, plus a stipend. In exchange, the students spent several hours in the classroom, five days a week for six weeks. Each Monday through Friday, Waterman would teach in the morning, and students would work on projects in the afternoon. In addition to Waterman, two coaches, Carin Rose ’20 and Ian Leinbach ’19, were there to provide guidance.

The students, whose majors include English, philosophy, and biology, say the experimental program provided a great opportunity to learn a valuable skill that will help with their work and research.

Final projects for the class were often complimentary to students’ majors.

Jiménez used his newly acquired coding knowledge to perform an analysis on an ancient Greek text that many attributed to Plato. His final project for the class was a text-analysis program that looked at the work of several Greek writers, including Plato, and concluded the famous philosopher was likely not the author.

“There’s this whole community of Greek and Roman scholars who do coding…to study different parts of the discipline,” Jiménez says.

Others, like Bukola Oloyede ’20, had some previous coding knowledge. Oloyede had learned coding while working on her high school’s robotics team. The summer course at Vassar has inspired her to work on a gaming app, and provided inspiration for using coding in her research as a biology major. 

“We want to give those students the tools they need to learn further in their field.” Assistant Professor Jason Waterman

The class had its start following a conversation with John Bradley, Executive Director of the Vassar Urban Education Initiative, who was looking for new outreach opportunities. That, combined with the Computer Science Department’s desire to offer a new, “gentler” introductory computer science course without prerequisites—one geared toward those unfamiliar with coding—led to the summer course, Waterman says. The class will be open to all students starting in the fall 2019 semester and the department is looking at offering another intensive summer course.

Waterman believes the course will likely appeal to students “who want to dip their toe in the water, but are intimidated.”

The summer class provided an opportunity to create a curriculum for those who are interested in taking one or two computer science classes at Vassar, and who can then go out and use those skills in their research and education.

“That’s the spirit of the class we want to have,” Waterman says. “These students, even in humanities, need to do research, and it requires computation. We want to give those students the tools they need to learn further in their field.”