Last year when I was still director of iTec, I worked on a project with one of the CDM staff advisors.  The CDM advisors were working on changing the way that students view the advising office, from a place you go when you’re in trouble or done with college to a place where you can get helpful advice along the way.  I helped with evaluation of the initial efforts which were focused on freshman.  Focusing on freshman makes a lot of sense and is supported by previous results in the literature.  Freshman are more likely than other populations to use advising services, and first-year programming has a significant impact on academic achievement, academic persistence, and graduation.  The resulting paper appeared in SIGITE 2011, and you can read it for more details.

While I appreciate research projects and I enjoy putting together articles about them, nothing brings home the message to me like personal experience.  In the past two weeks I’ve had four opportunities to see the difference that establishing relationships with freshman can make for them.  The first two examples are students who are in my second-quarter Python class this year.  The first arrived in my Python class having had a very negative experience with programming in high school and reacted with great enthusiasm with only a bit of encouragement.  He recently showed me the thousands of lines of code he’d developed over the winter break.  I’m trying to find him an internship because any company would be lucky to have him.  The other Python student struggled in the first quarter, and at one point told me that he couldn’t get anything right.  I told him that the best thing he could do was to write lots and lots of bad code since that’s the best learning experience of all.  He seems to have appreciated my comment, and he’s taken to asking my advice about classes even though I’m not his advisor.

The other two students I met when they enrolled in my Discover Chicago classes in previous years.  Discover Chicago is a class for freshman which is designed to teach them college-survival skills in addition to an academic topic, in my case the digital divide.  One former student is now a senior who has struggled to get the attention of his assigned advisor.  He recently contacted me out of desperation, and his situation was easily resolved.  His gratitude and the fact that he thought to contact me after not having seen me for nearly four years meant a lot to me.  The second former Discover Chicago student babysat for me a couple of times, inspired by the relationship she and my daughter established the one day I brought her to class.  She recently contacted me to ask if I could write a letter of recommendation for her, because, as she said, I’m one of her professors who knows her on a personal level.  I was happy to say yes.

I decided last year that I wasn’t going to teach the Discover Chicago class anymore.  So it makes me happy that I’ll continue to have exposure to freshman in the Python courses.  It’s relatively easy to make a positive difference for them, and I would hate to give that up.