Community-Engaged Scholarship And Computer Science

In 2012, before I was assigned to teach CIS3750 (Systems Analysis & Design in Applications), I knew nothing of Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES). In fact, if pressed I would have guessed that CES was some sort of award for volunteerism. However, one fateful meeting with Linda Hawkins, Director of the University of Guelph’s Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, in May of 2012 changed my understanding completely.

Since that meeting, CES has become a major component of many of my classes. In fact, I use it to achieve the various learning outcomes of my courses while providing students with a real-world opportunity and a semester long project that has the potential to make a difference in the community. Sadly, the partnership of CES and computer science does not seem to be the norm. That is, while it is used extensively in other domains (e.g. the social sciences), it seems to be lacking in undergraduate computer science classrooms.

With this in mind, and based on several requests following numerous different talks and presentations, I thought it might be beneficial to write down some of my learnings and experiences that came from introducing CES as a core element of the CIS3750 classroom. These experiences span 5 iterations of the classroom (from 2012-2016) working on projects primarily in the food insecurity and food waste domains (e.g. Farm To Fork, the Garden Fresh Box Program, the Appleseed Collective, the Trick Or Eat Campaign, the Seed POD program, and a farmer and crop management system for Malawi) with community partners that include the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table (GWFRT), the Food Access Working Group (FAWG), the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB), Transition Guelph (TG), the Guelph Community Health Centre (GCHC), Meal Exchange (MX), the Seed Community Food Hub (The Seed), and the Agricultural Research & Extension Trust of Malawi (ARET). My goal is to describe the challenges and opportunities that CES provides, including a discussion of the various players involved, a description of the timeline and tasks associated with the development of a CES classroom, the necessity of managing expectations, and the outcomes to date (both from the student and community points of view). I’ll end with a discussion of several outstanding questions or challenges associated with CES and the CIS3750 classroom.


Before we explore timelines and such, it’s probably a good idea to understand CIS3750 a little better. CIS3750 is a required course in the School of Computer Science at the University of Guelph that tasks students to work in teams to develop a functioning prototype of some system. Prior to my involvement, students would be tasked with developing a video game. Specifically, they would be provided a set of things the system needed to do (called requirements) that they would have to categorize and prioritize to ensure they had 1) some sense of internal consistency and logic, and 2) met the needs of the client/user (often represented by the professor). For example, the students would need to identify if the successful completion of one requirement depended on the successful completion of another. As part of this process, the students would evaluate if each of the requirements were sufficient and necessary, adding or removing requirements as needed. Given the size and scope of such a project, teams would be designated to tackle certain elements of design. For example, one team might focus on the database design and API implementation, another might focus on building the user interface, while another might develop the code that provides the background functionality of the system. Ultimately, students would need to master communication within and between these teams to develop the system by the end of the semester.

The introduction of CES to CIS3750 occurred as an additional layer to the course. That is, none of the pedagogical goals of the course were changed. Instead, the professor would no longer act as the client/user of the system, nor would the professor provide the system requirements. Both of these things would be provided by the community partner. Additionally, the course continued to be presented in the reverse classroom style. That is, students were expected to develop their understanding of theory outside of the classroom, instead spending their time in the class applying their knowledge to the course project.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-37-23-pmPlayers Involved

In most classrooms, the players involved are typically limited to the professor and the students. A CES-CS classroom introduces at least 2 new players; the community partner themselves (the client), and the people who are to use the system that is to be developed (the user). In some cases the client and the user may, in fact, be one and the same, however, this has not been the typical case for CIS3750. For example, in 2012 the CIS3750 class developed the Farm To Fork system while working with a set of community partners, including the GWFRT, the FAWG, and numerous local emergency food providers. The users of the Farm To Fork system were identified not only as the emergency food providers who would use the system to create a real-time list of needs, but also the general public, and the people who would use the system to donate items that were needed.

Regardless of how many players are involved, each have particular roles and responsibilities, as well as expectations that need to be managed. These will be described in further detail in the various sections to follow.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-37-49-pmTimeline And Tasks

A CES classroom, at least in my experience, begins many months before any student ever steps foot in the classroom. Specifically, it begins with a set of meetings to select the most appropriate community partner. Here, the word appropriate is not meant as a judgment on the particular community group, or their particular challenge, but instead a measure of how well their challenge might map to the learning outcomes of the course. For example, one of the key goals of CIS3750 is that students will be able to communicate effectively within and between teams to develop a functioning prototype by the end of the semester. This means that at a minimum the community partner’s challenge must be of sufficient scope as to require several teams working together to solve it. A simple website that has no server-side functionality or database won’t fit the bill. A system, such as that required to support MX’s Trick Or Eat campaign (including both web and mobile applications to store, manipulate and analyze data) would and did fit the bill.

During each of these initial meetings with potential community partners, it’s probably best to begin with a brief description of the course, including a simplified list of its key learning outcomes, and examples (if any) of other successful projects from previous iterations of the class. The community partner should be encouraged to ask any question during this time to ensure they fully understand the scope and context of the course and learning outcomes. During this time, I tend to stress the major deliverables expected of the students (e.g. a requirements document, as well as paper prototypes, wire frames, and final prototypes) and how the partner could/should be involved in those deliverables. Finally, I ensure there is ample time available for the community partner to describe their challenge, as well as to address any questions that I might have.

Once a community partner and project have been identified, the months leading up to the first day of class are spent working to 1) understand the community partner’s challenge in detail, 2) align the elements of the challenge to the learning outcomes of the class, 3) identify partner responsibilities, and 4) establish and manage partner expectations (discussed below).

Understanding the community partner’s challenge, in my experience, is a critical stage of the process, and extremely helpful during the alignment process. In some cases, this requires several meetings and site visits to contextualize the challenge and determine a sense of its scope. It’s also during this time that a common lexicon is or should be established. Similar to the software design process, open communication with the community partner is absolutely essential to ensure that the challenge is presented to the students correctly. Further, this stage often proceeds in an iterative fashion with the community partner updating and correcting any misconceptions or misunderstandings I’ve had. When the community partner and I are at a stage where the project has been adequately defined, I then spend time working to align the elements of the challenge to the learning outcomes of the class. While the community partner doesn’t necessarily take part in the alignment process itself, it’s good to keep them informed about the process so that they remain connected to the course. It’s also necessary during these stages to develop a set of responsibilities of the various parties, which may include classroom visits, data provisions, and depending on the community partner and challenge, intellectual property rights.

Working with community partners to identify and understand an appropriate class project, aligning it to the learning outcomes of the class, setting responsibilities and managing expectations represents a significant investment in course prep time; one that is in addition to the typical prep required for any class. CES is not for the faint of heart. It is a commitment, but one that I would argue is well worth the outcomes.

During the course, there will and should be several points of contact between the community partner and the student. For CIS3750, this includes a first class visit where the community partner describes their challenge and answers any student questions. It should be noted that I often contextualize the challenge from a broader perspective during the first class meeting, or at the latest during the class prior to the community partner’s first visit, so that the students are prepped and ready to ask relevant and intelligent questions. I also provide the students with topic-specific documents through the course website so that they can fully prepare for the community partner’s visit. Given that most of the CES projects in CIS3750 have focused on the issue of food insecurity, this often means providing the students with materials including, but not limited to, a formal definition of food insecurity, Hunger Count from Food Banks Canada, and research described by PROOF at the University of Toronto. It’s not expected that students will become domain experts in (for example) food insecurity, but that they will use these materials to support the design of their solution. Ultimately, I would suggest that it is good practice to provide students materials from the application/community partner domain in addition to any other regular course materials they might need.

In CIS3750, other visits from the community partner tend to be tied to specific classroom activities. This includes three lab demos used to test the student solutions against community partner and user expectations. The demos use such methods as paper prototyping, wire framing, and high-fidelity functional prototyping so that students can glean information from the client and the potential users to iterate and improve their final design. In this way, the class will have several well thought out, but likely incomplete solutions prototyped by the end of the semester. One of the benefits of the lab demos is the high possibility of students needing to rethink or update their prototypes based on a significant change identified as a priority by the community partner or intended users of the system. For example, students who worked to develop an educational platform for the UGDSB learned during their paper prototyping session that a donation platform was not required by the client. While this caused some initial uproar by the students during our classroom post-mortem follow-up, ultimately they were satisfied when they recognized that the removal of the donation functionality would have little to no effect on the other elements of their project, and in fact made their overall project simpler. Disruptions of this nature provide students with a unique and highly educational real-world experience that could not be replicated in the same way if predetermined or prescribed by the professor.

If the project is to continue beyond the CIS3750 classroom (which has been the case more often than not), a subset of the classroom will typically enrol in independent study courses (e.g. CIS4900), will volunteer their time, or will be hired as an undergraduate research assistant or co-op student to continue the project. In all of these scenarios, it is necessary to continue dialogue with the community partner to ensure they are aware of the state of the system, the resources needed to complete the project, any unexpected hurdles or challenges, and the expected timeline.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-38-25-pmManaging Expectations

With so many players involved in the course and the reality that any solution to the community challenge would require an investment of time from the students that would exceed the length of a typical semester, it is absolutely essential to manage everyone’s expectations, including my own.

I learned this the hard way. That is, after the students had spent a semester working with the GWFRT and the various other community partners that supported the development of the Farm To Fork project, I asked the students several simple yes or no questions. Specifically, I’d asked them 1) if they felt that they had developed a tool that would address the issue of food insecurity in Guelph, and 2) if they were proud of the work they’d accomplished during the semester. To ensure anonymity of responses, I left the room and gave the students time to discuss this amongst themselves. One student was selected to record the total number of students who answered yes or no (or abstained) to each question. To my complete surprise, 63% felt that their work was not going to help the community, and more than a third of the class were not proud of the work they had accomplished. When queried why they felt this way, I was told that they had expected to complete the entire project by the end of the semester. Despite the accolades by the community, the students felt that they had failed. Clearly, I needed to do a better job explaining to the students what likely could and couldn’t be completed over the course of 12 weeks within the constraints of a single-semester classroom.

To that end, I’d suggest that expectations are set in the following manner:

  • Students are expected to master the learning outcomes of the course while working with a community partner on a broad challenge. To that end, students are expected to communicate clearly and professionally whenever they interact with the client, but they are not necessarily expected to master the learning outcomes AND complete a fully functioning system for the client within a single semester. In fact, from my point of view, I expect and assume that they won’t be able to complete the project.
  • Community partners are expected to understand that education of the student comes first. That is, while every effort will be made by the professor to achieve the outcomes relevant to the community partner, the priority is ensuring that the students are able to meet the learning outcomes of the course. To that end, the community partner needs to understand that there is a risk that students will not want to continue working on the project beyond CIS3750; that their project will effectively die when the last student finishes the final CIS3750 exam for that semester. While this has only happened once over the past 5 years (as a result of the majority of interested students going off on co-op terms), it remains a risk that needs to be identified and managed. Further, it is also expected that the community partner will satisfy their responsibilities to the best of their ability, including all classroom visits, timely delivery of data, and taking part in activities such as the prototyping and wire framing lab demos.
  • The professor is expected to manage the relationship between the community partner and the students, both during the semester in which the course runs, and any follow-up activities outside of the classroom. In the case of the Farm To Fork project, I have played a very active role outside of the CIS3750 classroom, including giving presentations during various community events, crowd-funding to support continued student work on the project, managing the Farm To Fork social media, and providing updates to our community partners whenever necessary. However, involvement outside of the classroom need not be this intense. I envision situations where the project is passed on to a student or group of students, managed more completely by them and the community partner.

Beyond these basic expectations, there is also a need to have a full discussion of intellectual property rights, especially if the students are developing a tool for a for-profit business. To avoid some of the challenges that a for-profit business might present, I have opted to connect students only with not-for-profit and charitable organizations. That is, the students are tasked with developing tools that will serve the common good and are not expected to generate income (save for maybe donations to the partner organization).

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-38-09-pmCES Outcomes & Challenges

To fully explore outcomes associated with the introduction of CES to the CIS3750 classroom, we need to consider the impact it has had on the students, and the community, as well as discuss the systems that have been developed. Of course, to put these results into context we should probably first identify the specific community partners, their challenges, and the resulting projects developed by the students.

As previously described, my initial foray into a CES classroom occurred in 2012 when the CIS3750 students were tasked with developing a web platform to improve communication between emergency food providers and those able to donate food. Working with the GWFRT, and the FAWG, as well as other experts from the community (e.g. the Guelph Food Bank, Hope House, etc.), the students developed the website. The project has been presented at numerous conferences, described in two peer-reviewed articles, and has garnered the development team Guelph Mercury 40 Under 40 awards, as well as the University of Guelph Student Life’s Be The Change award, and the Emilie Hayes Community Partnership award. The project has also received over $50,000 in crowd funded donations.

In all but one of the subsequent years, CIS3750 students have worked to develop tools that addressed issues with our food systems. The exception was an educational platform the students named KidTribute that was developed in 2013 for the UGDSB which would connect expertise in the community with elementary and high school curriculum. Development on that project, as well as the Garden Fresh Box program (2014) and the Appleseed Collective (2014) has ended for one of several reasons. The UGDSB project has been discontinued because interested students were unavailable to continue work on the project due to co-op placements. The Garden Fresh Box program was replaced with a new system in late 2015 or early 2016. And finally, the Appleseed Collective program has had development placed on hold because the TG identified new priorities after structural changes internally. It’s important, however, to remember that these discontinued projects are not to be considered failures. Students were still able to achieve the learning outcomes of the course, and community partners have been more than satisfied with their engagement with the classrooms (more on this below).

Of the remaining projects – Farm To Fork, Trick Or Eat, The Seed POD, and the Farmer & Crop Management System for Malawi – are all in various states of development.

In the case of Farm To Fork, the current website was developed by a set of students who were originally in CIS3750. Several of them earned course credit in the School of Computer Science’s independent study courses, CIS4900 and CIS4910, while others continued developing the program as volunteers, or as paid undergraduate research assistants. In the latter case, students were paid through monies raised during several crowd funding campaigns. The Farm To Fork website formally launched October 3, 2013. Today, students continue to develop the project to allow easy growth for use outside of the City of Guelph. Based on demand, we’ve been working to upgrade the system so that anyone around the world can use it. The students are also working to develop a mobile app that uses location-based technologies to alert registered donors about the needs of their emergency food providers the minute they walk into a grocery store or market.

Work also continues on the Trick Or Eat campaign for MX. Throughout the summer and fall semesters, several students worked to develop a pilot version of the tool that was tested at Halloween during the University of Guelph’s annual Trick Or Eat event. The results were highly positive, with student volunteers eager to see the project completed. We continue to work with Meal Exchange to complete the project, with the goal of a nationwide roll out within the next 2 years.

Both the Seed POD and the Farmer & Crop Management System are still in the early stages of development. That is, these two projects form the core of the current CIS3750 classroom. It’s hoped that several of the CIS3750 students will continue to develop one or both of these projects as part of their independent studies in CIS4900 or CIS4910. Regardless, one of my current graduate students (and the lead developer of the Farm To Fork project) will be heading to Malawi in January to continue working with ARET on the Farmer & Crop Management System.

A full list of projects, community partners, challenges, and such are provided in the table below.

Year Community Partners Challenge Project Project Status No. Students
2012 GWFRT & FAWG Improve communication
between emergency food
providers and donors – website live
– mobile app & web updates in progress
2013 UGDSB Connect community experts
to classroom curriculum
KidTribute – project development ended
– students unavailable
2014 GCHC Provide a system to bring
fresh local food to those
in need
Garden Fresh Box – development continued until 2016
– new system set up by GCHC
2014 TG Create a tool to help organize
volunteers to harvest fruit
trees to prevent waste
Appleseed Collective – project development ended
– community partner focused on other priorities
2015 MX Develop web & mobile tools
to help with logistics of
Trick Or Eat campaign
Trick Or Eat – prototypes complete
– system test completed Oct 31, 2016
– continuing development
– expected launch Oct 2017
2016 The Seed Build a platform to manage
the purchase of local produce
to achieve a low cost
Garden Fresh Box
Seed POD Program – in development 42
2016 ARET Construct web and mobile
tools to connect farmers
with scientific information to
help them transition
successfully from tobacco
to other cash crops and foods
Farmer & Crop Management System – in development 43

Beyond the tools that have been developed in CIS3750, there are several other equally important outcomes that need to be discussed. This includes the impact that a CES CS classroom has had on the students and the community.

Impact on Students

As previously described, the 2012 CIS3750 cohort ended their semester with some rather strong reservations and concerns related to their perceived inability to develop a system that they thought would serve the community. This was a failing on my part because I didn’t recognize the importance of managing student expectations in a CES classroom. Despite this mistake, the students were still successful in achieving the various learning outcomes of the course. Beyond this (at least from an anecdotal point of view), engagement in CIS3750 was higher than almost every other class I had taught up to that point. In a class of 30 students, average class and lab attendance was close to 100% (excluding a few absences due to illness, and conference travel), and classroom discussions and debates were lively (sometimes too lively). And every offering of CIS3750 has, to date, shown similar patterns of engagement. From a pedagogical point of view, it seemed as if the class was a success.

It wasn’t until 1/3 of the Farm To Fork class decided to either register for CIS4900 or CIS4910, or volunteer their time as a means of continuing or assisting the project development, that I began to get a sense of the power of CES. However, it would be more than a year before I truly understood how meaningful a CES project was to the students. When asked to provide comments on their experience in CIS3750 (and beyond), a group of the students collectively replied:

The CES approach empowered us to create better solutions, enhanced our learning experience, and provided a sense of ownership over what we created. It is safe to say that the projects were the only projects in our collective university careers that are still used to this day to help the community.”

Since then, similar results have been observed in almost every iteration of the course. Student engagement has been higher than my typical classes, and classroom attendance has been on average 90% or greater. Of the 50+ CIS3750 students who have pursued independent study work with me outside of the classroom, more than 40% have contributed directly to the projects that began as part of their classroom experience.

Course evaluations since 2012 offer another source by which to understand the impact CES has had on students in the CIS3750 classroom. While these observations need to be tempered with the fact that students are not required to complete course evaluations (or provide comment even if they do), several overarching themes emerge.

Overall, comments related to working with a community partner have been positive. Students indicated that they believed they’d gained valuable real-world resume-worthy experience and that they were motivated and engaged because their classroom work had purpose. They also indicated that the class was fun, and while they weren’t able to finish a complete project after 12 weeks, they were happy with their results and mostly proud of what they’d accomplished.

Of course, not every outcome was rosy. Despite efforts to try to manage student expectations, there always seem to be students who struggle with the idea that they likely will not complete their project by the end of the semester. Some wish for more development time, others simply indicate their disappointment. Regardless, many of the students who describe these sorts of challenges go on to say that they enjoy the course, and find the CES aspect valuable. Whatever their overall impression of the course, these outcomes speak to the need to consistently and repeatedly manage student expectations throughout the semester.

A minority of students have also suggested that the introduction of CES is simply my way of garnering free labour to complete one of my pet projects to save the world. These particular students also have indicated that they shouldn’t have to be forced into volunteer work. For these reasons, I feel it important to have alternative and traditional projects established that students in the class can be assigned if they are opposed to the idea of working with a community partner. Regardless, no student has opted out of the community engaged projects to date.

Several students also criticized the use of CES, as they have felt that it had us deviate from course content. Further, they found it frustrating when I didn’t have an answer regarding the direction of the course project and also believed it unfair that they should be tested on the community partner’s overarching issue. To the first point, none of my CES classes have followed the intended path that I’ve developed prior to the students stepping into the classroom (but I could probably say the same for any of my non-CES classrooms as well). I’ve always tried to remain flexible when teaching CIS3750, but these comments have made me aware that I need to do a better job of reassuring the students that even though we might seem off track, we’re still going in the right direction. It’s also apparent that more work needs to be done to ensure students that even though I don’t have all the answers, our community partner is there to help us out. As for testing students on the overarching issue of the community partner, I firmly believe this is essential to a successful CES classroom. As part of CES, students need to take some ownership of their community partner’s domain of expertise. That is not to say that the students need to become domain experts as well, but that they should be at least somewhat familiar with the challenges and issues the community partner is trying to address. Good software design requires it.

Other challenges identified by the students, although outside of my control, have had to do with a growing class size and the issues this presents when trying to develop a single class-wide project. In 2012 the CIS3750 classroom had 30 students. Since then, the class size has grown to 93 in 2015, and 85 in 2016. Next year it is expected to support 100-120 students. Despite the growing numbers, I believe that CES is manageable within a large classroom and that the learning opportunities and experiences it affords outweigh any administrative overhead. Further, I think many of the challenges that have been identified due to class size can be mitigated with further research and experimentation within the classroom.

Impact on community

I have also been surprised as to how much the CES CIS3750 classroom has impacted the community. Of course, there are the impacts that product development has provided, and continues to provide. But there are also the less tangible items, such as an increase in awareness of food insecurity in the City of Guelph, and the connection the community feels with the School of Computer Science.

While a formal study of awareness has not been conducted as of yet, we have seen the community respond to the work of the students through their connection to various social media campaigns, and crowd funding initiatives. For example, as of writing this post, 380 people have liked the Farm To Fork Facebook page, while 1827 are following the Twitter account. These platforms have been used over the past 4 years to successfully raise thousands of dollars that have allowed students to travel to conferences, and have been used to support student stipends.

To demonstrate the connection the community now has with the School of Computer Science, one needs look no further than the list of various community partners who have reached out to determine if their particular projects align with the learning outcomes of the CIS3750 classroom. Almost every semester I am contacted by groups with very real issues that they need help addressing. The reason for these initial communications, in my opinion, is because people have heard of the successes of working with an empowered classroom of nerds. And the list goes well beyond those that have become the CIS3750 partners. That is, while not all of the community projects have aligned with the CIS3750 learning outcomes, the majority have become projects for students in CIS4900 and CIS4910.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-37-35-pmRemaining Questions and other concerns

The introduction of CES to CIS3750 has proved, in my opinion, to be highly beneficial. However, it has also opened up a new set of questions and concerns that I’m only just beginning to explore. Some of these questions and concerns are outlined below.

  • Selecting a community partner has, up to this point, been based on a judgment call on how well the potential partner’s challenge aligns with the course’s learning objectives. That is, there is no formal structure identified to measure community partner challenges. Moreover, the selection process excludes the opinions of students. It also does not consider what might happen if a student has a fundamental issue with the goals of the community partner. For these reasons, I believe it necessary that the selection process be formalized and completely transparent. In addition, the makeup of the selection team needs to be identified (e.g. the selection team could consist of faculty, previous CIS3750 students, and community partners). Further, there needs to be an alternative project or pathway for students who are fundamentally opposed to working with a particular community partner, for whatever reason.
  • In addition to managing student and community partner expectations, there needs to be a set of tools to help manage the instructor’s own expectations. Despite the work that goes into the course, and the balancing of student and community partner expectations and outcomes, there will be times when the project just doesn’t proceed in the way you’d think it would or should. There will also be times when the students opt not to continue working on the project, no matter how amazing you think it is. From my own experience, these times can be quite demoralizing. A set of tools that help me climb out of these academic pits-of-despair would be highly beneficial, especially when a professor’s attitude in the classroom can have such a profound effect on student engagement. Of course, what these tools look like, or how they are to be accessed remains to be determined.
  • The long-term sustainability and maintenance of the projects also need be addressed. That is, when do the projects move from the academic institution to the community partner? How long are the students or school required to maintain the systems (if at all)?

Final Thoughts

It has been over 4 years since I stumbled into the world of CES. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of watching students take a community challenge and develop truly remarkable solutions, and I’ve also struggled with managing expectations and the disappointment that comes with a discontinued project. I’ve seen how CES can be used to engage the students, I’ve seen how it can be used to achieve the learning outcomes of a course, and I’ve experienced the numerous challenges that it can pose. Through all of the ups and downs that have come with this grand experiment, my takeaway message is this: while much research still needs to be done, I am confident that CES should have a very real place in the domain of Computer Science education.


3 thoughts on “Community-Engaged Scholarship And Computer Science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s