April 29, 2020

An Interview with Samuel Rebelsky, Tapia 2020 Scholarship Co-Chair

Samuel Rebelsky, Tapia 2020 Scholarships Co-Chair

Samuel Rebelsky is a Professor of Computer Science at Grinnell College and the Tapia 2020 Scholarships Co-Chair. We spoke to Samuel about his career, the Tapia Conference and teaching online during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in the Boston Area, the only child of first-generation Americans. My mother was a Professor of Psychology at Boston University and my father was an executive. My mother taught me all about the challenges that face women in the workplace, when she went to graduate school in the 60’s she was asked “what guarantee will you give us that you won’t waste your degree by having a child?” My father taught me that even without a degree you can move up in an organization if you are smart and work hard.

How did you become involved in Computer Science?

When I first went to college, I planned to get a PhD in mathematics. In my first year I realized I would never be a great mathematician. I took a computer science class and discovered what I really enjoyed was solving interesting problems and puzzles and being able to build things. Much more fun than writing proofs. I was at the University of Chicago and they had a new PhD program in CS where I was able to teach and I discovered I loved teaching. I was able to go straight from undergrad to grad school. My area of focus became Lazy Functional Programming. After I graduated, I went to Dartmouth University as a visiting professor. From there I went to Grinnell College which I felt was the perfect place for me, it was small enough for me to get to know all of the students. The students also had a strong sense of social justice and were very diverse – you could have someone be a Computer Science/Chinese double major. I still know it was the right place for me when during this COVID-19 crisis the first question the students asked was if all the workers were going to be paid and the College refunded all students’ remaining room and board, with some receiving their refunds before leaving campus.

What are you working on today – what are your areas of interest?

A key area of focus for me is computer science education. One example of the things we’ve been working on is different models of middle school coding camps that can bring and support greater diversity. We’ve created camps focused on computing in the arts, data science and digital humanities. All our camps have a strong emphasis on computing for social good. The students are very aware of what is going on in the world and are very passionate about many causes such as the extinction of elephants, the thin blue line, gas and oil and their effects on Iowa. We bring the kids to the Grinnell campus and for the first time they are thinking about going to college. Our college president has been supportive and we’ve made the camps as accessible as possible by keeping our costs low ($25 for a week) and opening early and staying late to accommodate parents’ work schedules. We have seen a real impact through these camps.

What impact has the Pandemic had on your work?

All our camps have had to be cancelled. It is especially difficult because we were seeing a real impact and there is no way to continue it this summer. I am also spending a great deal of time worrying about my students and making sure they are getting the support that they need to finish out this school year. We face the challenge of how do you teach effectively online, especially in work that involves close interpersonal interactions. I just have to keep telling myself and others – this too shall pass.

How did you become involved with the Tapia Conference?

I first attended Tapia in 2015 in Boston. We had been sending women students to the Grace Hopper Celebration and seeing it was having a real impact. We needed to work on students of color find way to improve their persistence and desire in the field. I liked the size of Tapia, it allowed for long extended conversations with people you met and there was a real focus on students. I really enjoyed how all the keynotes spent the first few minutes of their talks speaking about how they ended up where they are and their research was really exciting and made me want to learn more. I volunteered to help and reviewed scholarships and posters. Last year I was asked to be scholarship co-chair and it was an amazing experience and I agreed to do it again. There are so many students who could not attend without the scholarship program so we are able to make a positive difference.

What advice do you have for students attending Tapia?

I know the Career Fair has become a centerpiece of the conference with many students hoping to come home with a job or internship. I advise them to experience all the different parts of the conference. They should attend as many talks as they can, you don’t know what will inspire you for your future. Also, enjoy the interpersonal experiences, really engage in conversations with as many people as possible.