Randomness Algorithms, Black Hole Models, and More Explored in New Computer Science Course

For the first time, Computer Science Research and Development, or Computer Science-600, is Andover’s first computer science class for independent research projects (IP). The term-contained course was offered for the first time this Winter Term.

According to Nicholas Zufelt, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, the course was created as a solution to the high demand of computer science IPs. With Computer Science-600, 12 students can complete IPs by the end of this term.

“I think this [course] is a much more equitable solution. Before, it was usually whoever asked me first, or I had to come up with my own sort of criteria of whether I accepted an independent project or not. No matter how fairly I tried to do that, it’s always going to be an equity issue, so I think this is much more fair,” said Zufelt.

Karin Knudson, Chair of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, the Dean of Studies Office, and faculty collaborated to design the course’s setup, logistics, prerequisites, and curriculum, according to Zufelt.

“One of the big focuses in the class is on presentation and how do you present your own original research or your own learning. So, we just recently designed our rubric as a class about how I am going to go about grading them when they start the presentations which will start this coming week,” said Zufelt.

In order to be accepted into this course, students had to submit a project proposal as their application.

“Because [it is a one term course], we wanted to have a very short application, so that student kind of comes in with a research project in mind. That’s really the main goal, not really to weed out students, but so that when you come in here, you’re going to hit the ground running,” said Zufelt.

According to Zufelt, the Math Department initially drew inspiration from other classes, especially as independent research project courses have become increasingly more common at Andover.

“For example, there’s Biology-600, which has been around for a while now. That has been very successful, and I think the original there which is similar to our original motivation is that there was a lot of interest among the student body toward having opportunities to do their own independent projects whether that’s research, or in our case, development of a large body of software to accomplish some task,” said Zufelt.

Nalu Concepcion ’19, a student in Computer Science-600, is creating a software program that allows deaf-blind students to become more involved in computer science and programming. According to Concepcion, she appreciates her peers in her class and believes that even though their projects are very different, they tend to learn from each other.

Concepcion said, “The fact that [independent research] is offered here at Andover is quite novel to a high schooler’s experience because we get to dabble in pre-undergraduate research in a much more professional setting, because we are surrounded by peers who are also doing research.”

Isaac Hershenson ’20, a student in the class, said he believes that conducting IPs can help students to learn about their personal habits. Hershenson was inspired by a mentor to work on a program that projects the career earnings of N.F.L. players.

“[Computer science] is a field which is largely unexplored. There’s a lot of things you can do that aren’t theoretical. I think that’s the reason that a lot of kids should do it. It’s also good for your problem-solving skills. Doing a larger project like this is always helps your organizational skills and I also think it helps you grow a lot as a student,” said Hershenson.

Bill Qin ’19 is studying the implementation of random aspects into algorithms, specifically in the context of where randomness thrives. Qin said that the greatest challenge with the independent project so far is not having a teacher to help pace the projects.

“Even though we have weekly check-ins, [the project] has to be done by the end of the term and midterms are coming up: How much should I have done by now anyway? Should I be ready to write my paper? Or just finishing the research good enough? The pace by itself has been sort of weird,” said Qin.

Anjalie Kini ’19 said she hopes that the completion of her IP will have a future impact in physics. In her latest meeting with Zufelt, Kini presented code of the model and visualization of black holes that could be potentially used as a learning tool in quantum physics classes.

The addition of Computer Science-600, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the further expansion of the course or the department, according to Zufelt.

“In terms of the number of students allowed, certainly, I would not want more than 10-12 in a given section because that is a lot of work for a teacher. I would be open to more sections, but this is always a big concern in the school, is that when you offer a lot of sections in one department, that might cause another department to drop in sections,” said Zufelt.

Qin says he believes that the Computer Science program at Andover is strong, especially due to the accessibility of these courses. According to Qin, 80 percent of Computer Science courses are open to students who have never taken the course before and the other 20 percent are for students who want to keep going with the subject.

“We don’t want for Computer Science only a select few students — we want lots of people to understand how computers work, it doesn’t matter how much you need to know them. It’s like how you need to know another language, especially in our growing digital age. More and more things require computers and knowing about them, and knowing how to perform something with computers is just as important as learning another language and going into a different country,” said Qin.

Qin said, “[The course is] not mandatory and I know there’s been a lot of sort of vouching in the Math and Computer Science Department to make Computer Science a requirement for everyone because it is like learning a new language… they’ve done a good job at making sure lots of it is accessible.”