Coding Languages Are Standard, STEM Classes Are Not

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Preparing to Take STEM Classes Abroad                                                            

I always knew I was interested in studying abroad after seeing my the wonderful experiences my sister and cousins had in various places around the world. When the anticipation of declaring a major began to loom during my sophomore year, I realized I had to start seriously considering how I was going to fit study abroad into my college experience. I met with my computer science adviser and together we made a projection of the classes that I would take for the next five semesters. Knowing early that it would be possible for me to meet the requirements and go abroad for a semester helped relieve a lot of the stress and planning needed in the coming year.

Finding the Class For Me                                                                                           

In the fall of 2017, the semester before I went abroad, I went through the directory of computer science courses being offered at Columbia in the spring. I was able to narrow down the classes that I would have taken had I been at school the upcoming semester. My adviser informed me that all I had to do to get approval was email him the syllabus and if it looked academically rigorous enough compared to the ones offered at Columbia he would approve them. So, I went on the University of Melbourne course website. With the help of my IFSA Program Adviser I was able to get information about looking up courses. I found the courses that seemed similar to the ones being offered at Columbia and was easily able to get approval from my adviser.

Once at UniMelb I went to their help center, called Stop 1, and signed up for classes. There was then a shopping period where I could sit in on the classes and decide which one I wanted to take. I ended up taking Database Systems, a second year class focused on learning SQL and analyzing databases and Linear Algebra.

Adapting to A New Way of Learning                                                                      

There were two major differences from the STEM classes at the University of Melbourne and those offered at Columbia. The first noticeable difference was that every class was recorded. This meant that for my linear algebra class the professor recorded all of the hand work he did during class under a projector. So, the emphasis put on attending the actual lecture was not as great. The second component was both my Database Systems and Linear Algebra class had mandatory two hour tutorials once a week.

For Database Systems, this meant meeting in a computer lab with a group of about 20 students and one TA. For the first hour the TA would review the material from the previous week and then give us practice problems to solve together. Then we would spend the second hour completing a lab to practice certain SQL concepts.

For my Linear Algebra class, the first hour of the tutorial consisted of also about 20 students and one TA. We would get into groups and do a list of practice problems on the whiteboard. After the first week or so I would sit at the same table with three other Australian students and while we didn’t communicate outside of class, we formed a friendly and comforting group during our tutorial to go over the concepts together. For the second hour we would relocate to a computer lab and learn how to compute linear algebra concepts in MATLAB.

None of my STEM classes at Columbia have such direct interaction with teaching assistants or mandatory collaboration with other members of the class. It forced me to keep up with my work more in order to be a supporting force for others in the tute and allowed me to ask clarifying questions in a lowkey setting to teaching assistants. I also was able to form friendships with Australian students that I would never have met outside of class and build stronger relationships with the students that I already knew. For instance, one of the Australian students who lived in my residential college was in my Database Systems tutorial and we became friends though working on labs during the tute together.

Major Take Away                                                                                                     

Overall it was not difficult for me to take STEM classes abroad. With the help of my adviser at home and the help center at the University of Melbourne I found classes that worked with my schedule and that I enjoyed. While the classes themselves took up more time than my classes typically have at Columbia, because of the additional tutorials, the workload was much more spread out. My database systems class only had three homework assignments each worth 10%, a midterm worth 10%, and a final worth 60%. My linear algebra class had weekly assignments each worth 1% of my final grade, a MATLAB quiz in the last week worth 10% and a final worth 80%. While I was not accustomed to having finals worth so much, the weekly tutorials made it easier to keep up with the material. Subsequently I didn’t feel incredibly stressed out about upcoming midterms. It was refreshing to have this change of pace from the rigorous unrelenting course load in typical STEM classes offered at Columbia. Since returning to school I’ve tried to take the mentality of collaboration back with me.

General Tips for Taking Stem Classes Abroad

  • Try to make friends in your tutorials
  • Keep in mind that most of your grade is based on the final exam, which means you may have to adjust your way of studying or processing information
  • Take advantage of the resources offered and time with your tutorial instructor to ask questions and get clarification on concepts
  • Take a class you enjoy! Coding is universal so the skills you learn can be used anywhere you go in the world

Izzy Friesner is an Information Science Major with a track in Public Health at Columbia University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia in Spring 2018.

Article by Izzy Friesner