The Importance of Student Clubs to Computer Science Education

Computer Science is a broad field that continues to widen. Opportunities abound for students to turn their interest in computer technology into new innovations and challenging and rewarding careers. The breadth of the field, however, and the need to learn at least a smidge about each little corner while building demonstrable expertise in at least one of them, proves a daunting challenge. With four years to accomplish this, students sometimes feel flooded with too much to learn in too little time. They may also lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to nurture their interest in computing and channel it into a force for innovative thinking and effective problem solving. Add to this burden the need – rightly articulated by professors, interviewers, and guest speakers from industry – that students develop well-honed soft skills so they may communicate effectively with co-workers and customers. Pulled in so many directions, some students may wonder just what they got themselves into in the first place.

Lewis University Cyber Defense Club at 2019 Illinois Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

Participating in student clubs can help students manage these stresses and thrive. A good Computer Science program offers students many opportunities to explore their interests, imagine and realize possibilities, and work and socialize with their peers. Extracurricular opportunities can help Computer Science students build expertise, make connections, and gain confidence, all the while learning to work with and appreciate their colleagues.

The Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences (CaMS) at Lewis University offers students many opportunities to get involved. We offer a mix of educational, professional, competition, and social clubs that offer something for every student.

  • Our IEEE , ACM and ACM-W Student Chapters sponsor guest speakers to come to campus to share professional experiences and career preparation advice with our students. They also sponsor educational events such as Makerthons and Hackathons, in which contestants have 24 hours to design and build a new gizmo or piece of software.
  • ACM-W plays an additional role: supporting and encouraging women to study and pursue careers in Computer Science, including future students as they assist Dr. Cindy Howard run events for the Girls Create with Technology program.
  • Our Programming Club offers students a chance to hone their problem-solving skills as they work as a team to solve challenging programming problems. Every year, they represent Lewis at the annual ACCA Programming Competition. This year, they are also participating in the Google Hash Code Competition through the Hub CaMS is sponsoring.
  • Our Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (DATASAIL) meets weekly and gathers students together who are interested in data analytics and machine learning to work on Kaggle competitions and other interesting problems involving large amounts of data.
  • Our Math Club is extremely active and invites students from every major to guest talks, conferences, and popular social events where they get, among other benefits, the joy of sampling some of the best chocolate chip cookies around.
  • Our eSports and Prometheon clubs give students who love gaming forums for celebrating and sharing that passion. The eSports Club, though not sponsored by CaMS, has been led over the years by Computer Science students. Prometheon, one of our first student organizations in the Department, holds video game and table game parties, which are particular welcome respites on Friday afternoons.

Perhaps our most popular group is our award-winning Cyber Defense Club. Formed in 2015 by two undergraduate students, the club meets four hours each week to learn as much as they can about every aspect of securing computer systems. Dr. Jason Perry, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, serves as faculty mentor, but he’d be the first to explain that he facilitates rather than teaches. Instead, the students teach and learn from each other. They develop deep expertise in one area of cyber defense and secondary-level knowledge in others so that, as a team, they can craft an effective and resilient cyber defense program for heterogeneous computing systems. The club has won several awards, including First Place at the 2018 Department of Energy Cyber Defense Competition. When they aren’t busy preparing for competitions, the members of the Club prepare for security certification exams. This semester, they are helping each other prepare for the CompTIA Security+ Certification.

Today, in fact, is a very busy day for CaMS faculty and students. Mentored by Dr. Piotr Sczurek, Associate Professor of Computer Science, students in the Programming Club are competing in the ACCA Programming Competition. And students in the Cyber Defense Club are competing in the Illinois Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. For both groups, today is simply the culmination of months of preparation. It is also an opportunity for them to demonstrate the teamwork and camaraderie they’ve developed over that time.

We believe our students benefit tremendously from participating in these various groups. They extend what they learn in the classroom to new and often more challenging problems. More importantly, they deepen each other’s knowledge and strengthen each other’s interests precisely because they rise to the challenge of working with each other. They learn how to navigate interpersonal relationships, including occasional disagreements. They learn how to soothe bruised egos and calm the occasional inflated one. They learn the art of give-and-take that makes collaboration such a powerful problem-solving force. They learn real-world do’s and don’ts for working together to hack effective solutions to daunting challenges.

Computer Science programs function best when they furnish numerous extracurricular opportunities for students. They deepen their knowledge, sharpen their skills, and – to a degree most classroom experiences don’t allow – learn how to work with each other. Extracurricular activities are an essential and empowering part of a comprehensive computer science education.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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