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Thank-you letter to donors to the CS department (version of December 2016)

I try to update our thank-you letter to donors at least every six months. This essay represents the updates I made today. The next time I write one, it will probably address our new hire (when we make it), our continued growth, the MathLAN transition, and more. I wonder if I’ll still continue writing the letters, or whether Jerod will take over when he assumes the mantle (burden?) of chair.

Dear Donor,

Thank you very much for your donation to the Grinnell Computer Science Restricted Fund or Diversity Fund. I thought you might want to hear how we typically spend donations and also learn a bit about how things are going in the department.

As you might expect, we primarily spend donations to the department on things that make students’ experiences better. Some funds go toward supporting the strong community within the department. For example, we have used the restricted fund to allow our Student Educational Policy Committee (SEPC) to have more substantive study breaks (e.g., with food from local Chinese and Mexican restaurants) and we will be using it to allow more study breaks this year. We have used the restricted fund for food and drink when students are presenting in class. In the summer, we use funds to build community among the summer research students, most typically through communal lunches at area restaurants, as well as trips to Iowa City and Des Moines. We also use the restricted fund to support the annual celebration of CS seniors. This year, we had an additional celebration for our four mid-year graduates.

Donations help us support students as they participate in interesting extracurricular activities. We have used the restricted fund to help send students to conferences, to hack-a-thons, to programming competitions, and to other similar kinds of events. In most cases, we also encourage students to look for other sources of funding, not only because it allows our money to go further, but also because we think there is a benefit to our students in learning how to ask for money.

Donations allow us to avoid red tape as we support student work. For example, we’ve often had students need to use Web services (e.g., AWS or Twillio) as part of their projects. It’s much easier to just go to our donation fund than it is to ask ITS. (I’ll admit that it’s sometimes even easier for me to just use my credit card, and I do so as I deem appropriate; that turned out to be a bad idea when the students accidentally posted our AWS key to a public repo.) At times we’ve even used funds for pizza for a project work session.

More recently, we’ve been using the restricted fund to help support the Pledge of the Computing Professional, The fund covers membership for pledgers, their certificates, and stoles for them to wear at graduation. We first used the stoles at the spring 2016 graduation, and it was awesome to see our majors so clearly distinguished.

I think we used some of the restricted fund to help support the recent Computer Science Affinity reunion. Reunion was well attended, and I was happy to see alums and students interacting.

When a donor specifies a particular activity that they wish to support, we do our best to support that activity. The most frequent notes I see in our donations are to support the social life of the department and to support diversity. More recently, a group of current students has suggested that they wanted to donate for the coffee fund, so I plan to set up some sort of coffee bar this coming fall. I will admit that I prefer more general donations, but I really do try my best to accommodate donor wishes.

We have received enough donations toward diversity in CS that we now have a separate CS Diversity fund. We are just starting to explore how best to use that fund. In part, it helps send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. I can tell you that I watch students come back from those conferences transformed. (And yes, I am looking for transformative conferences for those who don’t self-identify as either of those groups but who nonetheless need some additional support; I will admit that those are harder to find.) We have also used the CS Diversity fund to support activities for Grinnell Women in Computing group, which, like Grinnell’s Women in Physics group, is not just restricted to those who self-identify as female. We have used the CS Diversity fund to support the department t-shirts, which read This is what a Grinnell computer scientist looks like. If you would like one, let me know and I’ll try to arrange to have it sent along. We do plan to set up a Web site to show off the wide variety of students who major in CS, each of whom will be wearing the shirt.

I expect that you’d like to hear how things are going in the department. You may be surprised to hear that we have grown significantly. For most of my career, we graduated about twelve students per year. We are now at about triple that size: We had 37 students in the class of 2016, 38 in the class of 2017, and 38 in the class of 2018. (That last number is likely to grow.) My rough model shows about fifty in the class of 2019. I am proud that as we’ve grown, we’ve retained our strong sense of department community. We asked our graduating seniors about community, and they re-affirmed that CS continues to have one of the stronger communities among Grinnell majors. We have also done well in diversifying the department; approximately 40% of our majors are women and about 30% are international students. We also seem to be doing well in terms of domestic students of color, although not as well as I’d hope.

These past two years also saw some significant changes in the faculty. Janet Davis was recruited away from Grinnell to found a new CS program at Whitman College, one which has now been approved. We congratulate Janet on this exciting opportunity. Henry Walker has moved to Senior Faculty Status. He will use his SFS time to work on a textbook for his innovative robots-based CSC 161 course. I’m happy to note that he will also continue to teach that course at Grinnell for the next few years. I’m especially happy that he was able to teach two sections in the fall of 2016. Jerod Weinman was promoted to Associate Professor with Tenure, which makes me particularly happy because it means that someone else can be chair.

We’ve also hired two new faculty to follow Henry and Janet (we use follow rather than replace because it’s not clear that either is replaceable). Peter-Michael Osera came to us from the University of Pennsylvania and does cool things with programming languages. PM calls himself a type pedant. Charlie Curtsinger comes to us from the University of Massachusetts and does equally cool things in systems, with some connection to programming languages. Our students tell me that both PM and Charlie are awesome. This year, we are hiring another new tenure-track faculty member. I’ll keep you posted as I know more.

The College has finally permitted us to hire a Peer Education Coordinator to support our peer education program. Since we have something like fifty peer educators scheduled to work for the department in Spring 2017, I think it’s important to have a good person in place. We were fortunate to hire Sarah Dahlby Albright, who has a degree in Mathematics and Mathematics Education from Luther. Sarah has only been with us for a semester, but I’ve been particularly impressed by her thoughtful observations on our classes and program. Sarah will also be helping with upper-level statistics courses.

Of course, adding Sarah and the as-yet-unnamed new faculty member mean that we also have to somehow add space to the department. Fortunately, we have one spare office, which we had intended either for the Peer Education Coordinator or a system administrator. That office will house our new faculty member. We will need to convert the West study space to a lab for that faculty member. To provide an office for Sarah, we are moving the public printers to the other study space, converting the printer room to a storage room, and converting our storage room to an office.

We expect some significant changes in the MathLAN. There is more Unix/Linux use across campus, particularly in the library and in the various digital liberal arts initiatives. It’s looking like ITS may want to centralize services and hire a full-time Linux person in order to broaden support. But don’t panic! From my conversations, they understand that we have particular needs in our department, and will do their best to support those needs. We are having analysts visit us in the spring to assess our needs. I hope to have more news by summer. After the transition, Mr. Stone is likely to be moving to full-time teaching and to more active writing, activities that will benefit not only our students, but the broader computing community.

The faculty have also seen a variety of successes. As I wrote last spring, Jerod Weinman received a sizeable grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue work in text recognition in maps. Jerod’s work shows great promise not only as CS scholarship, but also to support work in the digital humanities. Jerod was also appointed IEEE Senior Member. Henry Walker has received two book contracts, one for his textbook on robots in C and one for a collection of essays on computer science education. I think both will be finished in the next year or so. The summer code camps that students and I developed last summer received the Governor’s STEM seal of approval. Peter-Michael Osera received an NSF award in his first year. And I’ve probably left out some thngs.

I am proud that our students are also taking the initiative to do new and interesting things. AppDev, the student-led mobile app development team, continues to be active on campus and is working toward obtaining regularized funding once their Innovation Fund grant. A number of students are hosting weekly coding club meetings for middle- and high-school students at the Drake Library. I think half of the 2016-17 SGA cabinet are CS majors, including SGA President Anita DeWitt. And, as is usual, many CS students are taking a leadership role in activities beyond the department, including improv, contra dance, and theatre.

Although I’ve covered a lot in this letter, I’ve certainly missed many important things. Nonetheless, I hope that what I have written gives you some sense of what is going on in the department.

Before concluding, I find that I must return to the issue of money. The College has recently decided to change how it expects us to use the funds donated to the department. When I’ve donated, both to CS and to other departments, I have also intended my money to be used on an as needed basis. It’s okay with me if a department holds on to the money for a few years and then uses it when it considers it appropriate to do so. However, Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) finds that many alums are surprised that we do not spend their funds quickly. Hence, the College has asked that we spend at least 50% of our restricted fund every year. If that is the donor’s intent, I am happy to do so. However, if a donor intends us to use the funds as needed, I would also be happy to follow those wishes. If you have preferences, please indicate them in the notes box when you donate. If you say nothing, I will assume that you would like us to spend the funds relatively promptly.

Once again, I am very grateful that you’ve donated to the department. You have helped make our students’ experiences better. Please let me know if you would like any other information about how we spend our donations or how things are going in the department.


Samuel A. Rebelsky, Professor and Chair

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-25.