As the summer of 2020 approached, students in the Stern College for Women computer science department faced the unpleasant reality that many companies were cutting back on their summer intern hiring because the presence of COVID-19 made it difficult to remotely administer internship programs.
This presented a serious problem to the budding computer scientists. A lost summer with no technical internship on the résumé could have negative implications for the quality of available jobs upon graduation.
But Prof. Alan Broder, chair of the department at Stern College, was determined that the summer of 2020 would not be a loss for his students.
First, Prof. Broder huddled with his faculty and industry colleagues to design imaginative in-house software development programs to help students sharpen their computer science skills. “These in-house projects, mentored by professionals and YU faculty,” said Prof. Broder, “were a true ‘reinvention’ of the internship experience.”
Second, Prof. Broder and his staff reached out to their contacts to see who could offer a virtual comprehensive internship where the instructors, mentors and students would work remotely but collaboratively on projects that had substance and challenge.
Because of their exhaustive and dedicated efforts to create internal and external internships, 26 students at Stern College found themselves engaged in intellectually challenging, educationally exciting and personally fulfilling computer science projects, all done remotely by students, instructors and mentors scattered across the country and the world.
Judging by the responses of the students and their instructors and mentors, what could have been a catastrophe turned into a productive educational experience that was also a great deal of fun and satisfaction.
Estee Brooks ’22S got to fly with NASA this summer–sort of. She and two of her fellow students worked with Dr. Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Their project: Writing computer code to make calendar predictions according to Maimonides’ classical work on Kiddush HaChodesh [sanctifying the new moon]. As Dr. Schnittman noted, “This specific project could never have been done at any other school.”
“We learned historically how people viewed calculations like this,” she pointed out, ”and saw where new modern developments have changed this.” They also learned how to convert the Gregorian calendar date to the English one and how the Hebrew date changes over time.
“This is my first internship experience,” she observed, “and I really appreciate that Prof. Broder is constantly trying to help his students find jobs and internships as well as help us prepare for these opportunities.”
Adina Bruce ’22S also did an extensive examination of Jewish texts, working with Dr. Joshua Waxman in the Natural Language Processing Lab, one of the in-house projects. “Throughout the summer,” she explained, “I and two of my classmates worked on creating tools that allowed us to use natural language processing to analyze the Talmud.” She gathered data, such as place names and names of people mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, into lists that would programmatically tag pages of Talmud, and these tagged pages would be used to train machine-learning programs.
Her original plan was to go to Israel to attend the annual Bar-Ilan University research program, but when that fell through, “I did not have other prospects for the summer” and so was extremely grateful for the chance to work with Dr. Waxman, whom she praised as being “extremely available and willing to help.”
“I was very happy to have these excellent, motivated students working on this project,” Dr. Waxman observed. “I was very impressed with their dedication and the quality of the code they produced. It was also wonderful working with these students outside of a typical classroom environment.”
Dr. Waxman, along with Prof. Broder, Prof. Laurence Teitelman (assistant clinical professor of computer science) and Dr. John Canning (president of Shakumant Software), also mentored students in LAVA, the Laboratory for Algorithm Visualization and Animation. Lily Polonetsky ’22S worked on building visualizations of data structures using Python and Tkinter. “As the student lead,” said Polonetsky, “I was responsible for managing the teams of students, answering questions, helping teams out and organizing meetings.”
She learned a great deal about the nuts-and-bolts of coding. “The point of coding these visualizations was to write open-source code that others would be able to use, modify and add to. I worked with my mentors to debug my code and work through issues I was having when writing the code. I learned about the process of code standardization throughout a project, how to review other people’s code and how to work on code as a team.”
Dr. Canning was as excited working with the students as they were in working with his guidance. “The students’ work was excellent. They showed lots of enthusiasm for the tasks, often asking for new tasks once they had completed others. They picked up the concepts quickly and were able to make use of their teammate’s work in adding new features to different visualizations.”
He also felt that he learned a great deal from their learning, energized by “the enthusiasm that students often bring to challenges that might seem tiresome or uninteresting to you.” He strongly recommended that others get involved in helping students achieve success and mastery. “If you enjoy ‘seeing the light bulb go on’ when a student understands a new concept, then mentoring student projects is a great thing to do. The work is full of surprises and rewards and discovering fresh ways to approach problems.”
At the final presentation, Polonetsky spoke glowingly of how the mentors, which included alumnae Riva Tropp ’17S and Chani Dubin ’18S (both now working at Google), had “truly all gone above and beyond what is required and shown us how dedicated you are as educators. We have learned immeasurable amounts and are forever grateful.”
Though all the summer projects were done online, Debbie Cohen ’22S had a bit farther to go, doing her internship from her home in Caracas, Venezuela, where she had gone to be with her family and wait out the pandemic.
She, along with Lizaveta Kemerava ’22S, worked with Tuvia Lazar ’04YC, managing principal at the Capital Technology Group, on what Lazar called “a combination of learning new skills and working on some applications using a variety of modern web technologies.” Their final project was the development of the front end and back end of an application marking favorite locations on a map. “We were learning web development, including front end, back end and deployment—the whole lifecycle of the application starting from the idea to putting it out there in the cloud for the people to be able to access it,” Kemerava explained.
Both students were grateful to the department for helping them turn what could have been a disaster into a spectacular success. “I am really grateful to Prof. Broder for helping us in our professional growth and inspiring us to learn more and pursue our goals in the field,” said Kemerava. Cohen agreed: “I feel very grateful for this opportunity and for having all these amazing people as professors and mentors.”
Lazar was more than pleased with the performances of the interns. “This was our first internship program, and we learned a lot about what students are capable of. The Stern students were outstanding, and in the words of the supervisor who ran the program, ‘They are by far the best students I’ve ever taught, and every single one of them is very close to being employable as a junior engineer.’”
The benefits of what the computer science department did to help its student went well beyond salvaging a summer’s work. It helped the students more deeply understand what they are studying in computer science and why they are studying it. For Brooks, what was exciting about the work she did was that “I have learned that you can apply computer science to any topic you are passionate about.”
For Bruce, the project she worked on deepened immensely her mastery of the intricacies of coding. “I have learned how to use heuristics when gathering data as well as how to debug my code and the code of others code and then how to problem-solve issues found.” Furthermore, “by working on a project outside of class, I have learned a ton about how to code in a creative way. While coding I may come upon issues and find solutions using programming that we might not have covered in class, or that is used in an unexpected way to what I had previously seen before. This project has opened my eyes.”
Cohen was pleased to realize “how complex a computer science career could be and how it requires constant studying and updating knowledge about the new tools, technologies and needs of the market because it evolves in giant steps. This means that computer science is a field that requires dedication, lots of passion and a good attitude about learning new things.”
For the instructors and mentors, they were pleased by the competence and enthusiasm of the students. As Lazar pointed out, the company learned from doing its first internship program that “with their solid CS training coupled with some experience utilizing those skills in software development, they will make strong candidates for our future hires.” He encouraged other companies to offer internship possibilities: “Students from Stern have a strong foundation and are fast and eager learners. Given a few weeks getting up to speed, they can become strong contributors to your projects and your organization.”