Vera Lluka, Cadence McGillicuddy and Sneha Sivaramakrishnan are studying different subjects at Western, but they were all drawn to a new coding class with a digital humanities focus.
They each use coding to reach their own goals: McGillicuddy, a first-year arts student with a double minor in creative writing and digital humanities, wants to design video games. Sivaramakrishnan, a third-year integrated science student specializing in synthetic biology, crunches genetics data using her coding skills. Lluka, a first-year science student, says the course is opening her eyes to a new way of thinking about programming.
“I’ve been obsessed with computers ever since I was a little kid,” she said. Hunting for interesting electives, she stumbled on digital humanities course 1011: Programming My Digital Life.
“It was the intersection between programming – a real STEM focused thing – and the humanities, which is something you don’t see intersect very often, that attracted me. People treat them like sports teams, you’re either on one side or the other,” Lluka said.
“It’s great to see them intersect, and for people to see how one can enrich the other.”
Though she’s long known how to code, taking a humanities-driven course taught her to leverage those skills to analyze and share information.
That’s exactly the goal of the course, according to its instructor, postdoctoral scholar Yadira Lizama-Mué.
It’s an introductory course – meant for those who have skills in coding as well as those who know nothing about it – that’s open to students from across campus, whether they’re in the arts, business, law, music or science.
“The central premise of the course is that programming offers a means for people to understand our daily lives and the way we interact with a lot of solutions and elements around us. We don’t know there’s a lot of programming behind it,” Lizama-Mué said.
Students learn to analyze text, speech or information from maps and networks.
Using code to drive solutions
The course can help with other academic pursuits or personal projects across many disciplines. It’s proven popular, with about 150 students signing up for the first year of the class.
“Many students come because they are curious about programming, or they want to use it in their own research, but they don’t want to go into an intensive programming path,” Lizama-Mué said.
“It’s very helpful if I teach them to use what is out there to create simple solutions in a simple way.”
Sivaramakrishnan was studying protein interactions as part of her biochemistry class when she realized she could use code to analyze the data. She whittled down a table full of information, using Python to pick and choose the elements she needed.
“Only 10 per cent of the data we have is structured, numerical data. The other 90 per cent is unstructured – that’s text or online posts or paragraphs. This class hit the nail on the head; there’s other things out there you can use coding for.”
McGillicuddy wants to crack into the video game industry, so she’s tackling both creative and coding skills in hopes of bettering her chances. She had previous programming experience from high school, but said the introductory class offered the perfect level of difficulty.
“It’s been really satisfying to learn how to do it right,” she said of learning Python.
An early assignment was based around data from Project Gutenberg, a library of more than 70,000 free e-books. Students were asked to pull all kinds of specific answers using code – from the most-downloaded book to the author behind it.
“It’s hard to break it down to easily digestible information, but once you do, there’s that satisfaction,” McGillicuddy said.
Sivaramakrishnan, who learned to code during her first year in the integrated science program, echoed the description.
“You’ll have lines and lines of code just for a two-word answer,” she said.
She appreciates the exposure to a different side of coding, already applying it to her research for other courses.
“This is a different avenue, looking at coding from a different angle.”
Forums build coding community
Lizama-Mué said the approach helps students apply their learning to a broader pool of work.
“They see a glimpse of what they can use for their own research or their own interests as they navigate the university,” she said.
Programming My Digital Life includes a weekly lecture and two hours of self-directed lab time, which students use to complete a variety of coding exercises. Participation is also required on an online forum, where students can troubleshoot and learn from one another.
“I give a lot of importance to the sense of creating a community. That’s what programmers do – when we have an issue, we go online. Python has a huge community behind it. Usually the questions you have, someone else already asked about it online,” Lizama-Mué said.
“If you can’t solve a problem, and you post it online, someone will help you. That’s what programmers do, that’s how we navigate.” – Yadira Lizama-Mué, postdoctoral scholar and course instructor
The interactive nature is great for absorbing and learning new material, McGillicuddy said.
For computer fans like Lluka, who hopes to major in computer science, the class is the perfect complement to more technical studies.
Though she’s not yet sure about the exact career path she’ll pursue, Lluka knows her future will include programming.
“I don’t care about my exact job title; I’ll be happy as long as I’m writing code.”