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SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Computer Science Offers Unique Hands-On Experience

Much has changed in the way of technology and career opportunities since the inception of SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Computer Science program nearly 50 years ago. Recently the department has seen a jump in enrollment from 38 computer science majors in 2009 to nearly 100 students now. Led by a group of four faculty members, the department now includes an equal representation of male and female professors with the addition of Dr. Laura Grabowski and Supraja Gurajala—something that is somewhat rare in a male-dominated field.

Grabowski, who has one year of teaching under her belt, said that her students’ level of engagement has been the highlight of her time so far at SUNY Potsdam. “I really love our students. Our computer science students are really motivated...They are not afraid to ask questions in class –they’re not afraid to challenge you,” she said.

Gurajala, who just finished her first semester of teaching at SUNY Potsdam, echoed that sentiment, saying that her “students here are very eager to learn. They’re open. They come to class with an open mind and they ask a lot of questions, which is what I like!”

While teaching computer science in Texas, Grabowski dealt with high research expectations, not allowing her to give as much attention to her students as she would like. She was looking for a university where teaching was the top priority, and SUNY Potsdam fit the bill.

“It’s much better here, the class sizes are smaller. We do that very much on purpose,” Grabowski said. “I have a lot more interaction with the students. They get a much better experience.”

Grabowski and Gurajala recently led a group of seven SUNY Potsdam students to the New York Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Rochester. The conference, aimed at promoting women in computing fields, provided great networking opportunities for the department’s students. Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, provided the keynote address and students were able to listen to research project presentations by graduate and undergraduate students from around the state.

A student entering SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Computer Science is not just a face in the crowd, they receive personal guidance along the way through a unique mentorship program where 34 juniors and seniors oversee the academic progress of 60 of their younger peers. Whenever a student misses a lecture, assignment or lab, they are required to meet with their mentor. The mentor then reports to the chair of the department when the student has completed a task and is back on track. This process keeps new SUNY Potsdam students from falling through the cracks and sets them on a path for success.

“This department has a remarkable employment record,” said Grabowski. “All of the students who complete our program have a job upon graduation or shortly thereafter. So, our job placement is remarkable, frankly.”

One of the goals of the department is to keep students engaged and interested in learning. Grabowski emphasized the importance of constantly learning in the field of computer science with an ever-changing technological landscape. She tries to instill a passion for learning in her students.

“To me, the thing that’s most important about teaching is to help awaken the excitement and the joy of learning itself in students,” Grabowski said.

Christopher Lanz, chair for the Department of Computer Science, said that he feels extremely lucky to have Grabowski and Gurajala on board this year. “We’re hoping that having two female faculty will help us recruit and retain female students. It should, just because passively it demonstrates that it’s possible,” he said.

Students will be able to take a hands-on, virtual reality class for the first time this fall, something Lanz believes will be very popular among his students. The department also offers courses in game development and design, artificial intelligence and desktop-supercomputing. The department has been designated as a CUDA Teaching Center by Nvidia Corp., a manufacturer of graphics cards that has donated thousands of dollars of hardware to the College.

Grabowski comes to Potsdam by way of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she taught computer science for the past seven years, after receiving her Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 2009. She first started her career as a dance professor before making the unlikely transition to computer science.

Gurajala moved to Potsdam from Pasadena, Calif., in 2002 when her husband accepted a job at Clarkson University as a professor of mechanical engineering. She was in the middle of her graduate studies when she moved to Potsdam, so she finished her master’s degree in computer science at Clarkson University. After finishing her graduate work, she taught computer science at SUNY Canton for three years before pursuing a Ph.D., also at Clarkson.

For more information about the Department of Computer Science, please visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/majors/computerscience.

 

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