How Lightweight, Scalable, and Relational Learning Experiences Can Help Overcome System-Level Challenges in Education

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David T. Lee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Computational Media
University of California, Santa Cruz
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Dustin Palea
Ph.D. Student and Project Lead
UCSC - Tech4Good Lab
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education

Can exploratory reading groups (ERGs) designed to be lightweight, scalable, and relational effect system-level changes in education?

Computation has quickly become a crucial part of nearly every industry1 and has resulted in unprecedented demand for a workforce that can apply their computational skills to diverse societal problems. To meet this demand, many initiatives have been introduced to improve CS education,19-21 especially for teaching skills such as programming or algorithms.21-23 Yet while teaching skills is important, developing the creative ability to apply these skills to real-world societal problems and fostering curiosity and motivation in the process are equally important for broadening participation in the computational workforce of the future and for developing technology for the public interest.3,5,6,13,14,18 Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) are one effective way to provide this type of learning, but are difficult to scale due to the challenge of finding mentors who have the necessary time.7

In this article, we describe our experience developing lightweight, scalable, and relational exploratory reading groups. Surprisingly, we found that these design parameters not only helped with fostering creativity and motivation, but also with overcoming system-level frictions to create pipelines into UREs. Read our story, use our materials, and let us know your thoughts!

A Chart with various anthropomorphic round icons with eyes and legs lead us through six stems of exploratory reading groups which are described in the caption below.

Figure 1: Twice each quarter, 1) students browse themes relating CS to society, 2) form five-week, low time commitment, student-run reading groups, and 3) stretch their imagination by exploring new ideas while building relationships through short activities. This has 4) helped facilitate entry into undergraduate research, 5) led to greater clarity and confidence in career goals, supportive peer relationships, and a sense of belonging, both of which 6) support a diverse and creative workforce.

Exploratory reading groups scale creativity and motivation in CS education

When you have an idea, act on it

We began experimenting with exploratory reading groups (ERGs) in the Summer of 2017. David just finished his first year as a faculty at UC Santa Cruz and had begun exploring ways to provide richer learning experiences to undergraduates. Dustin, as a first-generation Pacific Islander passionate about educational technologies, had just finished his sophomore year as an undergraduate, and had first-hand understanding of challenges facing diverse populations. Since none of his friends or family had any experience with research, he had no idea what research entailed or how it might relate to his passion to innovate in education. He is now a thriving 3rd year PhD student in Tech4Good with 3 projects published or in the review process and 3 more ongoing.

David had invited ~15 students to work with him that summer, and at that point, everything was honestly pretty chaotic. The reading groups were started on a whim: “Who knows, maybe undergraduate students will enjoy reading research papers…”. Surprisingly, many actually were! The discussions were not as in-depth as graduate journal clubs, but they covered a broad range of topics and built peer connections, leading us to wonder:

What would it look like to design exploratory reading groups for fostering creativity, motivation, and supportive peer relationships?

This initial pilot served as a proof-of-concept which we iterated on over the course of the next two years through a design-based research process,17 and with the support of NSF IUSE funding1 In our ERG program, students read and discuss papers in small-groups (~6 – 9) on topics such as Technology and Democracy, Socially Expressive Robots, Fairness in AI, Future of Education and Work, and Safety of Autonomous Vehicles. These themes are proposed by faculty actively working in the research area and are framed to be socially relevant and thus motivating to students. In contrast to graduate journal clubs, which focus on in-depth critique of one paper at a time, ERGs instead have students discuss 2 – 3 papers in each session as a way to explore a broad set of ideas.

A charge shows a green bar representing a launch session on the left where little dots form circles, representing the coming together to learn about themes and select papers and facilitators. To the right there is a progression from week 1 meetings to week 4 meetings where students start with get-to-know-you questions and finish with win week 4 with paper presentations and discussions

Figure 2: The ERG program occurs over five-week long phases starting with a launch session for organization, followed by four one-hour meetings for building relationships and exploring ideas.

Bumps happen – just keep pushing through

We ran into many challenges along the way. Having faculty-led groups created a mentor bottleneck that was not sustainable, our growth plateaued, and if one or two members left due to feeling overwhelmed by midterms, their groups would completely fall apart! But, we were able to escape the mentor bottleneck by shifting toward groups that were both stable and almost entirely student-run – ultimately allowing us to expand to more faculty and students. As our paper describes,9 our design-based research process led us to a lightweight, scalable, and relational design that addressed these issues (view best practicesa).

The design of ERGs supports student entry into UREs

When surprised, dig deeper

As we ran the groups, we noticed that they were not only providing a more scalable alternative to UREs for creative exploration, but that they also had the emergent benefit of facilitating entry into UREs. UREs are a widely recognized approach to supporting purpose-driven learning, but they are hard to scale due to significant barriers such as faculty time and incentives,2,4,8,11,15,16 which are not easy to address in resource-constrained environments. We saw that our reading groups were leading some students to join research labs and that faculty were most interested when we pitched ERGs as a pipeline into their lab.

As we interviewed faculty on their perspectives on UREs through our onboarding process to the reading groups, we found that many barriers to UREs center on misalignments (see our ICER paper for details.12 First, many barriers stem from misalignments between the education system and the research system, including a lack of preparation from the traditional school system, constrained student and faculty time, and a lack of systematized pipelines into UREs. Second, these system-level misalignments led to misalignments in faculty and student goals, with students wanting to explore and build skills but faculty looking for clarity of interests and prior skills due to wanting to advance research. Third, failed engagements could result from misalignments in student expectations of research and the realities of research, such as in the level of supervision and structure provided or the true nature of research. Finally, faculty struggled to reach and maintain steady state due to the significant work required to overcome these misalignments through building and maintaining team structures tailored to a continually changing stream of students.

Use lightweight, scalable, and relational programs to address misalignments

Involving undergraduates in research is an uphill battle. But lightweight, scalable, and relational learning experiences like ERGs build student skills and interests needed to engage in research, and bridge the gap between existing misalignments in the way.

Since they are low time commitment and student-run, they circumvent the barriers of limited faculty and student time, and meet student goals of exploration in ways that don’t clash with the faculty who need to advance their research. Themes are directly connected to labs, and therefore enable students to learn about active research at their institution without jumping through hoops or committing to a longer term role. This in turn increases the likelihood that students have greater clarity of and match in interests when applying. And because there is intentional relationship-building, students make connections with others already working in labs, giving them opportunities for networking, knowledge about the realities of research, and encouragement to apply. In a survey of our undergraduate participants from this current quarter, ~47% of 55 respondents said that they either somewhat agree or strongly agree that [they] gave or received emotional support from others in [their] group at some point during the group.

The image shows a set of bar graphs with survey results from students. It shows that students somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that they developed good relationships, were exposed to ideas they found fascinating, developed clarity or confidence in the major they wanted to pursue, that they gave or received emotional support, they felt a greater sense of belonging at the university and in their major, and that they have increased interest in participating in research.

(Hear what the interviewed undergraduate participants had to say.b)

The Dean and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in Engineering at our university are excited about expanding the program to all engineering faculty. Last quarter, they helped us to institutionalize the program as a 1-credit course, now refocused and rebranded to provide pathways into research labs. Reaching this step wouldn’t have been possible if not for the ERGs’ lightweight, scalable, and relational nature.

Next steps: How can I bring ERGs to my school?

You are three steps from bringing exploratory reading groups to your school:

  1. Dive in. Define your own themes and host the program yourself. Start small (we started with just one group!) and expand over time. Take a look at our SIGCSE paper9 that explains the program and our design motivations in detail. And check out our playbook and online platform to run your own groups!
  2. Involve other faculty. Once your groups are up and running, expand to more diverse themes and other faculty interested in building a pipeline into their lab. Make sure to frame themes in connection to their impact on society so they are relatable to students. Ask faculty to advertise their own and others’ themes to students in their classes.
  3. Institutionalize the program. Institutionalizing can be challenging, but the good thing is that there’s no rush since the program is built to be sustainable. As you gain experience running the program and growing to more faculty, you will naturally attract attention before too long. Use our successful implementation as a case study to back yourself up. This blog post and our more in-depth papers,9,12 can all be useful resources.

Parting Thoughts

When designing ecosystems to tackle complex systemic issues, one often doesn’t have control over every part. Instead, Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown suggest designing systems of action,10 “interrelated action-intended components that… work systemically to affect the context of the problem… [that] scale, enabling small actions to affect a larger social ecosystem”. Lightweight, scalable, and relational learning programs like ERGs are simple interventions, but their promise for overcoming system-level challenges lies precisely in their ability to facilitate greater alignment in small ways that matter. It’s amazing that this all evolved from a whim to explore whether students would enjoy reading research papers, to wondering how reading groups could be designed to foster creativity, motivation, supportive peer relationships, and more inclusive STEM environments, to establishing pipelines for undergraduate research that is now serving 100+ students each year and growing! Exploratory reading groups can be powerful tools for fostering creativity and motivation and for establishing pipelines into research labs. Use our resources to start one today! And then ask yourself: how might new lightweight, scalable, and relational programs help grease the wheels to advance progress on other system-level challenges I face?


Best Practicesa

  • Our program is broadly accessible to students because their weekly time commitment is extremely minimal. In a 4-week long phase, students only need to read and present 1 paper and attend weekly hour-long meetings. For this small time investment, they were able to explore many ideas.
  • Similarly, faculty only spend a small amount of time defining a socially relevant theme related to their research. After a launch session, each group is run by the students themselves with the support of an operational guide and a student-elected facilitator. Since the focus is on exploration and motivation, it isn’t critical to ensure that students understand the papers fully, so long as they’re engaged and stimulated.
  • Students spend the first 15 minutes on “get-to-know-you” questions that the day’s presenters pose. These range from the more typical (“How was your day?”) to long-term goals (“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”) to even questions requiring vulnerability (“When was the last time you cried?”). This simple intervention was quite impactful, creating comfort, a sense of belonging, and peer support.

Undergraduate participants that we interviewed in past quarters said:b

“I think [interacting with undergrads and grad students is] pretty cool, especially when you need to go ‘hey, I don’t understand this topic’, and then one of the grad student’s like ‘oh, yeah yeah yeah, I’ve learned about this…’ [and they] start coming up and drawing on the whiteboard.” (Cody)

“…all of the people in my group were studying CS or had a background in CS. I think they made me gain interest in the AI concentration in Cog. Sci. Because before, I was like ‘Oh I don’t know…’ (unsure of AI). But like, since they were talking about all the classes they were taking, it felt like they… I don’t know… it was a community I liked being a part of.” (Tiffany)

“…the people that I was in a reading group with [were] very confident about their choice [to pursue CS]… I learned that CS is applicable to a lot of different fields… [it] definitely cast a positive light on what I think about CS… I always thought CS was intimidating… but now I’m more open to it.” (Emma)


This research was funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1807388. Dustin was also partially supported through the Spencer Foundation under Grant No. 202000030. We want to thank our external advisor Rebecca London for helpful guidance when we were just beginning to undertake design-based and qualitative research, and leadership in the division, Dean Alexander Wolf, Associate Dean Jim Whitehead, Chair Sri Kurniawan, Director of Student Excellence, Engagement, and Inclusion and the MESA Engineering Program Carmen Robinson, and Professor James Davis for supporting the program’s growth and institutionalization process. We want to thank the undergraduate student coauthors of this research, Rhea Sharma, Atira Nair, Ana Guo, Ryan Anderson, Nisha Charagulla, and many other students who helped with running the reading groups or designing and developing a (still in-progress) platform for running ERGs: Nicolle Ayon Campos, Hsien-Yu Chen, Ivy Chen, Gurdikhia Kaur, Ivy La, Tiffany Lee, Thomas Raffill, Veronica Rivera, Justin Yu, Mingrui Yu, Elizabeth Dinh, Aitanna Parker, Henry Slayer, Egan Bisma, Tim Tang, Brittany Lei, Tomohiro Shimada, Sarah Avila, Kayla Bowler, Allison Truong, Eliza Gonzales, Charita Mangina, Marissa Lewellen, Melanie Wong, Garrett Leising, Krishna Pandian, Mathew Raju, Anish Kumar, Aditya Pooruli, Yaman Inamdar, Yijie Zhu, Karthi Sankar, Sabrina Sin, Michael Lee, Joshua Cho, Ajay Bhatia, Radhika Gadre, Daniel Chan, Ria Dinesh, Jessica Kuang, Anish Kumar, Gordon Yee, Christian Delos Santos, Rina Munakata, Raghavendra Raikar, Upasana Halder, Ali Zaidi, Sheyla Aviles, Shreya Sundar, Nick Wang, Bhaswati Das Gupta, Arya Das, Leejin Kim, Naysa Chopra, Aaron Wu, Sai Skyam, Jeremy Lin, Michelle Sheu, Yukti Malhan, Sayak Datta, Jason Ohanaga, Justin Lee, Parmpreet Gill, Animesh Tiwary, Calum Chan, Neil Bisht, and Fernando Chau.