By Meghan Chua
When Adalbert Gerald Soosai Raj came to UW–Madison for a master’s degree in Computer Sciences, he was surprised by the number of questions in the classroom. Why, he wondered, was it so different than his native India, where conversations were one-way and students rarely asked questions?
The possibilities Soosai Raj is exploring to that end promise new directions for computer science education.
Soosai Raj’s research was inspired by his experiences first as an undergraduate at a university in India, then as a graduate student at UW–Madison. The approaches he explores would have helped him as a learner, he said. And he hopes they will help others as they pursue computer science training.
Soosai Raj first learned about dual language immersion method as a graduate student, taking an Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis course with Professor Richard Halverson. In the U.S., dual language immersion often involves core classes being taught in both English and Spanish.
He thought about his hometown of Chennai, India, where Tamil is the native language. Computer science is taught in English, the primary language for programming worldwide, but Soosai Raj hypothesized that allowing Tamil in the classroom might help students understand the concepts in an easier way.
“In the classroom, everything is in English, but once you leave the classroom we always have our conversations in Tamil,” he said.
Soosai Raj teamed up with Halverson and Computer Sciences professor Jignesh Patel as his co-advisors. A pilot study confirmed that he was on to something.
This summer, with support from a Scott Kloeck-Jenson Fellowship through the Institute for Regional and International Studies, Soosai Raj traveled to Chennai to conduct a longer study. He collaborated with teachers from the College of Engineering Guindy, where he completed his bachelor’s degree, helping those teachers implement dual language immersion in their classrooms.
He plans to analyze the data from that study for his dissertation, but observationally, Soosai Raj has already seen differences in groups that were taught in English and Tamil compared to the English-only classrooms. Those who were able to speak in Tamil asked more in-depth questions and probed for more follow up, whereas those in the English-only classroom stuck to more factual questions.
When the students felt more comfortable asking questions, their interest in the subject blossomed.
“When we had this interaction in Tamil and English and made them more comfortable within the classroom, encouraged them to ask a lot of questions, they started feeling like [programming] is something that they could do,” Soosai Raj said. “Those classes really made them look at programming from a different perspective and then helped them to start learning or develop an interest on their own.”