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18 May 2021

An Interview with Samuel Rebelsky, #Tapia2021 Engagement Chair

Samuel Rebelsky Photo

Samuel Rebelsky is the 2021 Tapia Conference Committee Chair and Professor of Computer Science at Grinnell College.  We spoke to Sam about what he is hoping the committee will bring to the Tapia Conference this year.

Tell me what you are working on these days?

I started using Mastery Grading in my classes.  It is a form of specifications grading where you are focusing on mastering the learning in the class, not when in the semester you learn it.  In the first course there were 28 learning goals identified.  Each semester there are 4 times where the students do problems to determine whether they have mastered the learning goal.  This gives them four chances to get an A for the whole course even if they only got a few concepts on the first set of problems.    Students are not penalized coming in with less knowledge or having a bad day, they always have a chance to improve.  At the end of the semester – if students have the time – most have enough feedback and know enough they can demonstrate it on learning assessments and homework assignments.  From the faculty perspective I have evidence a student deserves an A.  It adds a lot of extra work, you need to create more problems and do more grading. An archive of problems will be built.  It seems to be more equitable – obviates the problem of fairness in the intro course – some come in more prepared than others.  First few weeks should never penalize them.

I’ve also been hiring faculty, teaching classes, trying to help students manage in a pandemic.  Been all online for fall and first half of spring.  Bringing back 2nd year and seniors backs – so mostly staying on line.  Our theater has done amazing productions online and the students are learning different skills doing theater online.  

What did you learn from last year’s virtual Tapia Conference?

Lots of things were successful last year- great talks and side chats during the talks. We did great workshops.  But we also saw there weren’t enough places for students and other people to build community together.  Community is so much the center of Tapia.  This was highlighted by the panel of former student attendees – how they built relationships in person was interesting to look at.

Patti and Khalil and I want to build a Tapia community before, during and after the conference this year.   A lot of people attending Tapia were not sure how to behave on the platform.  Some students would post their resume and wander away which didn’t help them, most employers ignored them.  We want to fix that and other issues this year.


This year you are the first Tapia Engagement Chair. What does this mean to you?


As Engagement Chair I am looking for great ideas for how to make online tapia as engaging and welcoming as the in person Tapia.  People can email me with their ideas.   I am putting together an engagement subcommittee so let me know if you are interested in volunteering.  We are also looking at creating a Mentoring Committee – experienced attendees who can mentor new attendees.  

We also want to work to better bridge the academic and industry halves of Tapia.  Students went to Tapia because it helps build engagement in computing, prepare a future and gain contacts.  Maybe one thing we will focus on is to help students realize that even if they don’t get the internship, they want it to still be worthwhile to attend the conference.  


What impact has the Tapia Conference had on you and your students?

I think the Tapia Conference has inspired some of my students.  Students will say we need to improve diversity and support it in our institution.  We have students who see things that excite them that they want to follow-up on.  Some are so amazed at what they got to do.  Two years ago a student spoke to one of the keynotes.  The keynote saw her again and the student reported to me that the keynote   treated her well and as an equal.  There are a number of students who come back with jobs and internships as well.  One student who wasn’t confident in himself, really had doubts and he met people who encouraged him.  Went into interviews encouraged.  He met someone who encouraged him and it made a huge difference.

What do you hope the next 20 years will bring for Diversity in Computing?

I don’t think we can eliminate systemic racism in the next 20 years, but I hope we can reduce it in the computing industry.  We need to find more people to use computing knowledge to fight systemic racism.  I went to a talk where someone said AI research is happening in industry – the goal of industry is money not knowledge – see more regulation to see people are doing the right thing.  Terrified by what is happening by some of the models and machine learning and the carelessness and the need to push back on them.  This needs to change.

20 years later we’re doing so much better on women in computing.  I hope we’ll have made the same progress.  In 20 years maybe everyone will acknowledge that they are not inclusive of differently abled people.