A Proposal for Preparing Future Faculty (PFF)

to SIGCSE by

the Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium

Cover Sheet Cover Letter Narrative Budget


Since 1994, the Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium has met about once a year to promote communication among CS faculty from colleges and universities in Iowa and to facilitate discussion of common problems and issues. Such meetings have enhanced various other informal contacts among Iowa's state universities and private colleges. Through this grant, several members of the Consortium hope to expand past interactions and increase a range of activities for both graduate students and undergraduates, with the hope that more graduate students will consider entering academic careers and that more undergraduates will consider entering graduate school -- with the option of an academic career in the long term.

Planning for this grant began with the observation that students wanting to pursue software development and/or research can find an extraordinary range of opportunities in private industry -- at salaries that are dramatically higher than those in academia. Thus, activities designed to encourage academic careers must highlight what is most special about academia -- teaching, student-faculty interactions, many collaborative research options, opportunities to conduct cutting-edge research, possibilities for interational travel and collaboration, and academic freedom. Already, the Learning Center at the University of Iowa works to help prepare graduate students to teach as TAs. This proposal builds upon past discussions within the Consortium and upon current activity at the participating schools, but will develop or expand interactions at several levels:

The following narrative describes these anticipated activities in more detail. Altogether, such activities should give both graduate and undergraduate students more direct contact in teaching, mentoring, and academic scholarship -- which are the primary selling points for academic careers.


While colleges and universities have asked graduate students or advanced undergraduates to serve in various capacities as mentors, lab assistants, and tutors, careful and expanded use of this approach can be extremely helpful in providing selected students with first-hand experience in a teaching environment. At a beginning stage, advanced undergraduates may assist faculty within a lab setting, where both the faculty member and assistant are present. In this environment, the assistant can help answer many basic questions -- with the faculty member as mentor, while the faculty member can field the more difficult or subtle questions. At more advanced stages, mentors, assistants, and tutors may take a more extensive role -- again under the guidance of regular faculty. Within this proposal, member institutions plan to review their current use of student mentors and assistants, with the intent of increasing the opportunities available. For undergraduates, this can give an initial teaching experience.

Visits by Graduate Students to Undergraduate Colleges:

Graduate students can gain direct teaching experience by preparing and teaching a short module. This proposal places that module in an undergraduate course at a partner college. Specifically, this proposal envisions graduate students working with partner colleges for each of the three years of the grant. In each case, a graduate student would consult with a faculty member at a partner college prior to presenting a module. This would allow a faculty member to give advice as to the depth, the type of examples, the pace of presentation, and so on. Such contact would provide some insight and experience that the graduate student may not have. More generally, such interaction could benefit the graduate student when making presentations to non-expert audiences and give a flavor for what teaching undergraduates is like from the preparation viewpoint.

Such an approach has benefits in three vital characteristics:

  1. each graduate student will gain first-hand contact with an undergraduate environment as a possible setting for an academic career,
  2. each collaborating college faculty member will provide mentoring and guidance about class organization and preparation -- increasing the likelihood that these teaching experiences will be positive for all concerned, and
  3. undergraduates will experience direct contact with graduate students, giving undergraduates the chance to explore possibilities and experiences of graduate work.

If, as expected, a module can be related to current research conducted by the graduate student, then undergraduates can better visualize themselves within a graduate research environment, and college faculty will renew their contact with various current research projects.

Shadowing by Undergraduate Students:

Another way to encourage undergraduates to consider graduate work is to give them some direct experience within a graduate environment. Thus, this proposal includes a shadowing program to provide undergraduates with individual contacts with graduate students. Specifically, the proposal seeks to create opportunities for 2 undergraduates from each of the partner colleges each year to interact with graduate students, attending classes and observing research activities. For graduate students, this also provides graduate students with a natural audience for discussions of their research activities. When that research seems exciting, undergraduates may be more interested in considering graduate school in general and participation in a specific research group in particular.

Events To Draw Undergraduates to a Graduate Department:

Various college admission offices report that students are more likely to attend a school if they visit. This part of the proposal identifies two, possibly related, mechanisms to encourage undergraduates to visit a graduate school: a programming contest and an open house. The proposal envisions each of these activities as including a significant contact between graduate students and undergraduates. If appropriately structured, graduate students would gain experience as mentors and teachers, while undergraduates would gain an appreciation of the possibilities available in graduate school. Outside funding could be sought from the Iowa Software Association or from IBM for a programming contest. The proposal anticipates at least one of these events to be held each year.

Expansion of the REU Program:

The University of Iowa's REU program has been extremely successful in bringing faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates together. Graduate students serve as mentors as well as pursue research, and undergraduates learn that they can do research. Both aspects are vital to encouraging both groups to pursue academic careers. Similar summer research projects at undergraduate colleges, such as Grinnell College, have had a similar effect. While the level of funding available for this proposal may not be adequate to directly increase the REU program, participating schools will look for other funding sources for such work.

Should additional funding become available, the Iowa PFF schools might brainstorm to consider how the REU opportunity might be carried beyond the summer -- perhaps with students continuing their projects once the summer is over with the undergraduate faculty being the immediate supervisor and the REU supervisor interacting with the undergraduate faculty.

Faculty Collaboration:

With increased collaboration between faculties on research projects, students and faculty at an undergraduate college might be able to work on a component of a larger project. This could significantly expand research opportunities in participating colleges, while placing that research within a broader framework. Coordination of efforts would be expected through periodic meetings and/or over the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). At the very least, this proposal envisions at least one meeting of faculties each year to review various plans of individual faculty for research over the next year or two.

Support for Students at Conferences:

Students can gain considerable insight and motivation regarding academic careers by attending regional and/or national conferences. For example, after a summer of research, four Grinnell students presented paper at a regional conference in Michigan, and all four found that experience particularly stimulating. Interactions with college and university faculty at that conference added a new dimension and new understandings of the possibilities for academic careers. This proposal envisions providing support each year for at least two undergraduates from each partner college and four graduate students to attend regional and/or national conferences.


This narrative has identified several ways that members of the Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium plan to work together to increase the possibilities for contact -- particularly between graduate students and undergraduates. This will provide direct teaching and mentoring experience for graduate students, so they can learn something of the excitement and satisfaction that comes from academic careers. Similarly, undergraduates will see good role models of people at the next level of education. With active faculty support at both the graduate and undergraduate level, such experiences can encourage students at many levels to consider entering academia.

This document is available on the World Wide Web as


created March 8, 1999
last revised March 12, 1999 by Henry Walker (walker@cs.grinnell.edu)