First Year Reflections: The Launch of UMBC’s Computer Science Program During the Pandemic. Guest Post: Sam Angell from UMBC

Blog post by: Sam Angell

Jeannette Kartchner, Lecturer, UMBC’s Computer Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

At first it seemed like a straightforward plan. UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove was going to be introducing Computer Science as a sixth undergraduate program for the 2020-21 academic year. It was coming shortly after the introduction of Translational Life Science Technology (TLST) as the fifth program, so while all involved knew it would be an intensive process, the guideposts were in place.

And then, 2020 actually happened.

We all know what that meant for the world and UMBC, but on top of all the lifestyle and societal shifts taking place, there was even more to negotiate for Jeannette Kartchner and the UMBC-Shady Grove Computer Science implementation team.

“One of the advantages of being here at Shady Grove is that this is close to where the students live,” Kartchner said. “But being in an online environment, it didn’t really matter where you lived. So some of the things that were pros for our program weren’t exactly applicable to the timeline when we were launching the program. We were expecting a lot more students to be starting off [last year], but there were a lot of prospective students who were hesitant about starting in that virtual environment.”

Kartchner came to UMBC in 2019, a year before the program was due to get off the ground. She applied for a lecturer position knowing that there could be expansion to the Shady Grove campus, and was tapped as the Assistant Undergraduate Program Director for Computer Science thanks in part to her 20 years of experience at Montgomery College. “I had a good understanding of the program and what we’d need [at Shady Grove],” she said. “It was a good fit for me.”

Though much of the groundwork for the program had been laid before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, 2020, there was still a lot of work to be done promoting the program and making it real in the eyes of prospective students. That was all complicated by the new reality.

“I visited a lot of classes online to tell them about the program, but the online setting isn’t ideal for that,” Kartchner remembered. “Anytime you’re trying to start something new with so many variables, it’s hard for students to visualize what the program is going to be all about. But students are starting to become aware that the program is here and is another option for them to pursue.”

For that unpredictable first year, Kartchner was also carrying a sizeable load as an instructor within Computer Science. Along with Dr. Mya Larson, she split the course load for the first year of the program. She was also assisted on the recruitment side by Academic Advisor Kim Casimbon, who also joined the UMBC team in 2019.

“Kim has been fantastic,” Kartchner said. “She is the first point of contact that the students make, so she’s always encouraging them to meet with her for pre-transfer advising, even if they’re more than a year away from coming here. She wants to get them on the right path with all the classes that they’ll need, and answering any questions that they have. Even while we were virtual, she met with more than 50 prospective students last spring.”

Now, in Year Two for the Computer Science program, things are starting to resemble the original plan. “All of our in-person courses are in the beautiful new Biomedical Sciences and Engineering Education Facility,” Kartchner happily pointed out. “It’s a fabulous building. And it’s nice to just be in the same room [as the students]. I’d taught some of them for a year without actually meeting them. That feeling that you get when you’re on campus is exciting, and they missed out on that for over a year and so did we as professors.”

It was not the first year that Kartchner or anyone else envisioned for the Computer Science program at UMBC-Shady Grove. But she and her team made the best of the situation, and are excited about the future for the program at Shady Grove.

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