UNITY — With the help of a tech giant, Unity College will offer its first-ever computer science courses this fall.

The school was recently named one of 20 across the country to partner with Google for a two-course sequence oriented toward machine learning. The first course, which will be offered this fall, will teach the foundations of Python, a widely used programming language. The second course, offered in the spring 2020 semester, focuses on data-informed decision making, visualization and analysis.

Erika Latty, chief academic officer of Unity College. Courtesy of Unity College

Erika Latty, Unity College’s chief academic officer, said that she hopes computing knowledge will help better prepare graduates for careers across the disciplines.

“When we look into projections and labor statistics, we see that data analytics talents are really the future of workplace,” she said. “We’re trying to invest in students having workforce-ready skills when they leave here. We were thrilled really to be chosen (for this partnership).”

Between 20 and 30 students of all experience levels will be able to enroll each semester, according to Latty. While registration for the fall has already begun, Latty said the computing classes have not filled up, and that the college is reserving room for incoming first-year students.

“We’ve been able to meet the demand so far,” she said.

Students can opt to take one or both classes, but those who complete the two-course sequence will be eligible to apply for a “selective” machine learning intensive program offered by Google over the summer, tuition-free.

The Google partnership is aimed at institutions that lack computer science departments or course offerings. Unity College does not have a computer science department, and while some courses advertise using computer modeling and geographic information systems, none in the 2018-2019 school year were exclusively dedicated to computing.

The purpose of these courses is to really augment the liberal arts degree with coding and programming knowledge … and to provide appropriate contexts for those technology skills so students are able to apply those skills to a variety of degrees including wildlife management, sustainable agriculture and environmental science,” said Latty.

The new courses are designed with a “flipped” structure, where students watch videos of lectures from experts outside of the classroom and spend time in class working on collaborative projects with peers. Latty said that the curriculum was designed with assistance from computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, who are among the lecturers featured in the videos.

Tom Whittaker, visiting instructor of physical science at Unity College, will teach the new computer science courses being offered in partnership with Google in the upcoming school year. Courtesy of Unity College

Tom Whittaker, a visiting instructor of physical science at Unity College, will oversee the class sessions next year. They meet for three 50-minute periods each week. Whittaker will receive training from Google New York this summer. Whittaker did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his involvement with the project Monday.

“While I’m quite confident that Google’s training in New York will prepare me to deliver this course, I don’t doubt that there is a strong possibility that there is someone in the class who is fluent in the basics, as coding has become integrated in many school systems or is a hobby for some students growing up,” Whittaker said in a news release from the college last week.

As part of the curriculum, students will have opportunities to speak with Google engineers throughout the semester and learn about launching careers in the tech industry. There will be a handful of live sessions where Google engineers will broadcast the work they’re doing through a private YouTube channel and students will have opportunities to ask questions, according to Latty.

They believe strongly that there is some important element to students witnessing coding being done in a work environment … and for them to see the iterations (engineers) need to go to solve real-world problems successfully,” she said.

Unity College will continue to pay Whittaker’s salary and will finance travel and lodging expenses for him during the New York training. The rest of the program is offered to the institution for free.

Latty said that she is unsure whether the relationship between Unity College and Google will extend past the 2019-2020 academic year.

“We’re really hopeful that it will,” she said. “But there’s no requirement that it does. If these courses are as successful as we hope they are going to be, it seems like a good investment for the college.”

According to Latty, part of the reason that Unity College was selected for the partnership was because the school does not have a computer science program but offers several degree programs affiliated with science, technology, engineering and math, which require knowledge of computing.

Representatives from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The folks that work for (Google) and the folks they want to work for them have liberal arts degrees, so they’re interested in investing in liberal arts degrees with coding and machine learning,” Latty said. “They really appreciated the context that we had to offer.”

Unity College currently enrolls approximately 700 undergraduate students.

The news comes on the heels of increased efforts across the region to expand applied computing learning. Earlier this month, Waterville’s Colby College received a $2 million donation to support data science studies. Waterville Senior High School also received a large donation to develop a computer science program. In the fall, Winslow High School will start offering an Advanced Placement course oriented toward using coding skills to solve real-world problems.


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