Lightweight, Scalable, and Relational Learning Experiences for Overcoming System-Level Challenges

David Lee
Assistant Professor
UC Santa Cruz

Need: Digital technologies have spread to virtually every sector of the economy, increasing the demand for a workforce able to creatively apply their computational skills to diverse societal problems. Undergraduate research experiences encourage curiosity and creativity, but are difficult to scale due to the inherent time constraints on faculty mentors. Guiding Questions: How might we provide opportunities for all undergraduate students to be exposed to the creative, real-world aspects of computing early on? How might we create new pipelines into undergraduate research? We present two research studies: a qualitative study centered on developing a richer understanding of the barriers to faculty engagement and a design-based research study centered on our design of Exploratory Reading Groups, a lightweight, scalable, and relational program. Outcomes: Initially, we sought to design co-curricular Exploratory Reading Groups as an alternative to undergraduate research. We designed them to facilitate a broad exploration of ideas, to be lightweight in time commitment, to be scalable and student-driven, and to foster supportive peer relationships. Unexpectedly, while running the program, we found that these design parameters not only achieved our original goals of supporting creative exploration for broad populations, but that they also had the emergent benefit of facilitating student entry into undergraduate research experiences. Our program has served hundreds of students and now, with the backing of the division, has been institutionalized as a 1-credit course. We are beginning a process to roll it out across the entire engineering division, with each faculty member having the opportunity to define reading group themes that can serve as pipelines into their research lab. Our reflection on the success of this program is that the lightweight, scalable, and relational nature of the program made them particularly suitable for overcoming systemic barriers. First, the lightweight nature of the program lowered entry barriers for busy students. Second, the scalable, student-driven nature of the program circumvented obstacles of limited faculty time and resources. Third, the relational nature of the program facilitated knowledge sharing and social networks that helped overcome many systemic misalignments at the root of several barriers to undergraduate research. Broader Impacts: We are excited about the potential for Exploratory Reading Groups to be an effective scalable strategy for broadening access of undergraduates to the creative, real-world aspects of computing, to enhance intrinsic motivation and purpose for learning, and to create pipelines into undergraduate research experiences, especially for underrepresented students. We are intrigued by the possibilities of lightweight, scalable and relational learning experiences as an approach to creating other educational programs that can address challenging issues facing systemic barriers.


Dustin Palea, UC Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA