Olin Alumni Co-Design Virtual Curriculum

August 22, 2020

Zachary del Rosario, a member of Olin’s Class of 2014 and recent Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering at Stanford, was named Visiting Assistant Professor of Engineering at Olin this spring and is set to begin teaching this fall.

Like many of his new Olin colleagues, del Rosario has spent a lot of time teaching in person, but not online—until now. Olin’s faculty had a crash course in remote teaching this spring, when the College, along with institutions worldwide, shifted its curriculum to remote delivery.

This fall, he will teach on the ModSim team, as well as teach his own Data Science course. While planning for the fall, del Rosario says, “I figured I should probably have some experience teaching online before diving in.”

Del Rosario put out a call to Olin alumni shortly after his appointment to gather a group who would like to learn data science and pilot his new course.

“It seemed that the best group of people to test this with were people who have already gone through an Olin education. They know what it should feel like and know what students will respond to,” explains del Rosario.

Over a hundred alumni applied to participate in this online learning experience. He landed with a total of 18 alumni, ranging in graduation years from 2007-2019, for his experiment. For four weeks, alumni learned data science by studying real data.

They worked about 10-15 hours a week, many of them balancing a full-time job along with their learning. “I'm deeply grateful to these hardworking alumni, as current Olin students will greatly benefit from the work they've put in to improve the class when I teach in the fall.”

When much of the U.S. began social distancing in March, many people experienced the challenges of social isolation and the disruption caused to established in-person communication. “I know I felt pretty isolated when shelter in place began. It was very difficult to connect with other people,” says del Rosario. “I took it for granted when we were interacting in person, even the small office conversations that we all count on.”

“Having some other excuse to interact with Oliners and share a whole constellation of ideas” was a bonus and antidote to some of that loneliness. He knew that was an area he wanted to pay specific attention to while planning the course and was one of the reasons behind assigning alumni to teams.

“The learning team was probably my favorite part of the cohort and overall experience,” says Jen Wei ’17, one of del Rosario’s summer students.

“Having a team to work with, lean on, and learn from made the experience more enjoyable than going at it solo, and the team aspect, along with the structured schedule, helped keep me accountable.”

During this summer’s trial run, del Rosario utilized Discord, a technology platform developed by video gamers. A large benefit of using Discord was its persistent channels. “Sharing random articles with students and encouraging cross-communication… this platform provided a place for these random interactions to happen. Making space for these interactions is how you build the cohesion within a learning community,” says del Rosario. 

“Asynchronous communication is key. Building rapport early so teammates are willing to jump on a call at a moment’s notice helps a lot,” says Elliot Donlon ’14 of his takeaways from the online class.

“I could see online learning being really hard if it's entirely self-directed,” says Kelly Brennan ’17. “However, Zach did a really nice job of providing daily exercises to learn new skills, and class challenges to practice and build on the skills. He provided great scaffolding and a road map that made it easy and fun to learn, both by myself and with others!”

“It was fun to learn new things. It was fun to meet some alums that I didn't go to school with (anybody younger than class of 2012, which was a lot of the class),” says Kelly Sharer ’09. “I liked working with my small team—they were all really great. And I think some of the skills I learned will be useful to me in my career!”

In addition to learning data science, the alumni enjoyed meeting Oliners from other classes, as well as getting back into a classroom with their classmates and friends. Asked if they felt like an Olin student again? “Doing assignment/project work with my teammates at 11pm?” says Donlon. “Yes.”

The summer Data Science students presented their mini-semester final projects on Saturday August 8th. “I was super-impressed by the work the teams did. These folks balanced full-time employment with learning new skills and ultimately put together some really compelling case studies. I’m looking forward to using the lessons I learned from these alumni in the Fall!”