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Writing an accessible course

By Louisa Izydorczak

CG Intern

I was College Guild’s Summer 2018 Course Intern. I wanted to write a new College Guild course relating to my major at Bowdoin College, the subject that I’m most passionate about. That subject is computer science.

When I first spoke to Julie Zimmerman, College Guild’s founder and Dean of Students, we both had some reservations about the idea of putting a computer science course in the College Guild curriculum. After all, our students range from third-grade dropouts to PhDs. On top of this, depending on how long they have been in prison and on what their lives on the outside were like, they would be coming into the course with a vast range of experiences. A course on “Computer Science” or even the broader “Technology” may sound too daunting for students, especially those less experienced students.

If I was going to make this happen, I would need to make the course as un-intimidating as possible, starting with the title. I thought of the ideas at the core of Computer Science, the ideas that make me excited to go to my classes each day. I love thinking about innovation and how advances in technology have the power to change our lives, for better or for worse. This led me to title my course “Inventions.”

The Inventions course starts out by prompting students to think about what constitutes an invention, talking about inventions that came about by mistake, and the earliest inventions, like tools used by cavemen. It talks about historical events, like the inventions of the car and the polio vaccine. There’s a bit about entrepreneurship, with “Shark Tank” as a case study. The course talks some about early computers, the internet, and social media, and how these things have changed the world. I had to be especially careful with these topics not to make the questions too technical, avoiding right/wrong answers. I ask students what topic they would enjoy making a YouTube video about, how schools might take action against cyberbullying, and what they think about politicians using Twitter. I go into the ethical issues surrounding technology, like accidents with self-driving cars, children experiencing internet addiction, and invasions of privacy in a modern world. The course concludes by considering how people have imagined the future in books, television, and movies and encourages students to imagine what the future might really look like.

I’m proud of Inventions because I was able to make computer science accessible while still holding on to those core ideas that get me imagining, thinking, and wondering. My course isn’t the only College Guild course to make a science-y subject accessible, though. I think of Marine Biology, a course that encourages students to write about caring for an abandoned seal and draw their own creepy, deep-sea fish. I think of Environmental Issues, a course that invites students to think about how natural resources are used in their institutions and how they might be conserved. College Guild courses have to be unique because of our unique student body, and that’s what makes writing a College Guild course so challenging and so rewarding.

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