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CS Recognizes Exceptional Graduates


 
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On Friday, May 7, 2021 the Computer Science department gathered to celebrate the great achievements of our graduates. Each year, we recognize our Distinguished Graduates: the students with a major GPA over 3.5; we hand out named awards to recognize our students’ contributions in theory, research, education, innovation, and outreach--among other areas; and we recognize our Exceptional Graduate: the student with the highest GPA in the major. 

Given the rigor and complexity of the CS curriculum, achieving the highest GPA in the major is an extraordinary accomplishment, so imagine our surprise to find that this year we had a three-way tie for our Exceptional Graduates: Emma Macaluso,Vivian Dang and Nicole Stock are all graduating with 4.0 GPAs and Macaluso is the CISE Valedictorian. “I put in a lot of work and I was really dedicated to my classes,” Macaluso explained, “and it’s so nice to see a reward at the end of all of this and be recognized. And I think it’s awesome that we get to represent the department in this way.”

Honors Capstone Theses

These three women are not just CS majors, they are all part of the Honors College and completed Capstone Theses this year. Stock worked with Dr. Oh in the Math department on her thesis "Higher Order Fourier Finite Element Methods for Hodge Laplacian Problems on Axisymmetric Domains." Stock explained, “I chose to do my research with a professor from the Mathematics Department, but I specifically chose the research project I did because it combined elements of math and computer science. Participating in undergraduate research has been a highlight of my JMU experience and has allowed me to explore specific aspects of both math and computer science more in depth.” Emma worked with Dr. Kevin Molloy on her thesis: “Characterizing Antimicrobial Peptides with Computational Techniques.” Macaluso shared that though the Honors project demanded a huge amount of time, she learned so much and I’m just so proud of my project. I sent my thesis out to my readers and I was just crying thinking ‘it’s over! I can’t believe this process is done!” Dang’s research was with Dr. Bowers and her thesis is titled “Algorithms for 3D Printed Infill on Curved Surfaces Based on Design Constraints.” Dang explained, “For me, the experience was challenging, but I felt like I needed a challenge. Overall, it was really rewarding to work with Dr. Bowers and learn so much about computational geometry especially since I have a minor in math. It allowed me to explore that field even more.”

An Interdisciplinary Edge

Dang has minors in both Math and Sociology, Stock is double majoring with Math, and Macaluso has a minor in Biology and was just shy of completing the coursework for a Creative Writing minor. As Macaluso explained, “sometimes people pick up minors that would look good on a resume, which is great, but I feel like the CS major stands on its own in the job market. [Vivian and I] both really enjoyed taking classes in the Humanities and those courses made our educational experience better.” Dang shared that the most impactful course she took at JMU was a Gender Sociology class for her minor. She said that the curriculum's exploration of the patriarchy was impactful especially since she was the only STEM major in the course, and the discussions helped her better understand her experience as a woman in a male-dominated field. Dang explained, “when I started the CS major, I would be one of two or three women in a class. I was really worried about not having any prior coding experience, but Dr. Weikle was so supportive in CS 149 and I really pushed myself: I did all the readings, I started the PAs really early, and I found that gave me a really good foundation for the major.”

Dr. Weikle’s influence continued throughout their coursework: she encouraged both Dang and Macaluso to become Teaching Assistants, and then Lead Teaching Assistants, and helped get them involved in research in the department. “We were excelling in our classes and she wanted to give us a challenge,” Macaluso explained. Dang added that the TA team was an “incredible community and great leadership opportunity for me to become a better communicator and teacher.”

Adjusting to Learning Computer Science

Looking back on their educational journey, the women noted how the teaching style in the computer science department transformed their approach to learning. Many of our first- and second-year CS courses are taught with Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), which can be a difficult transition for students who are success- and grade-oriented in high school. Macaluso explained, “I did not like POGIL while I was in it. I wanted to be doing my own thing; I didn’t feel like that was the best way for me to learn. But once I was in the CS 261 POGIL group, I realized how helpful it was. I understood this is what learning should be: a discussion with all of us working together to figure out what’s going on. And that’s reflected in the programming assignments we do. I personally struggled with POGIL in the beginning, but looking back at it, I know that was the right way to do it. And it connected me with so many people who have been my support network in college.” Dang had a similar experience. Since the POGIL approach requires students to tackle unknown problems and fail often as they try new approaches, Dang said she “had to learn to not be a perfectionist. Once I got out of that mentality, I started doing better and stopped putting so much pressure on myself.”

Advice to Future CS Majors

And was there any secret to their success? Stock’s advice for our students: “I would encourage CS majors to start projects early and ask for help or clarification when you need it. Professors and TAs are more than willing to give assistance, but they won’t know you’re struggling unless you ask.” In addition, all three women have a wide range of interests outside of their major: Stock exercises regularly and is getting into running, Dang has been a graphic designer for the Bluestone Yearbook, and Macaluso has been taking a lot of creative writing courses this year. She’s been enjoying it because it’s challenging in such a different way than computer science: “I’m not writing something for it to work, but writing something because it is true.” Each woman noted the benefit of pursuing a wide range of interests and exercising different muscles - either literally or intellectually - to keep them focused, engaged, and enjoying their collegiate experience. 

What's next

So what does the future hold for these women? Stock will be headed to The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory where she will be participating in their Discovery Program and work with four different groups at JHU/APL over the next two years. Dang and Macaluso are excited to be sharing an apartment and working in NOVA: Dang will be a software developer at CapTech and Macaluso will be a developer at BrightSpot. With their dedication to hard work, love of problem-solving, and impressive range of skills, I expect they’ll be launching their own companies and making their mark on the world in no time!

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Published: Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Last Updated: Friday, May 21, 2021

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