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Computer Science Majors Go 'Back to the Future'

Unique student space recalls 1980s camaraderie

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When Lars Sorensen recalls his days as a computer science major in the 1980s, the details might seem unfathomable to today's students.

"You didn't have laptops and you didn't necessarily have PCs in your home," says Sorensen, a staff employee in the Department of Computer Science, School of Arts and Sciences. "To complete your assignments, you had to spend long nights in the computer lab."

Yet there was also a strong sense of camaraderie which became a treasured and indispensable part of the undergraduate experience.

"Back in the day, you spent so much time in the lab that students really got to know one another," Sorensen said. "Friendships were made. Communities were built. Projects got worked on.

"It was a good esprit de corps."

And that is precisely the vision behind a unique student space Sorensen and the computer science department helped create in the Hill Center on Busch Campus. Known simply as the CAVE (Collaborative Academic Versatile Environment), the space, with its scarlet walls, comfortable blue couches, and flat screen TV, is a welcoming oasis for students needing a place to decompress after class.

But it's more than just a hangout. The CAVE is stocked with Linux computers, movable whiteboards, and bungee tables perfect for collaborative work.

On a typical day, students drop in to do homework, get tutoring, or simply network with fellow computer science majors.

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"If I'm not in class, then I'm here," said Bill Lynch, a Class of 2014 graduate who served as president of the Undergraduate Student Alliance of Computer Scientists, and now works for Google. "Most of my friends are here too."

The mix of the studious and social fuels a give-and-take between students, and as a result, the CAVE is often the launch pad for undergraduate research projects.

During their senior year, Lynch and fellow computer science student Jenny Shi worked at the CAVE on a new algorithmic approach to the way Rutgers schedules classes.

"This is a good environment not just for getting work done, but for getting inspiration, Shi said. "You meet a lot of bright, creative people who can supplement and expand on what you get from your classes."

Professor Richard Martin, who helped develop the concept of the CAVE, said creating an outside-the-classroom space was vital.

"When I was an undergraduate, other students showed me things that weren't part of class assignments," Martin said. "And that was very helpful."

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The CAVE, which is managed by Sorensen, and staffed by students, was opened several years ago and has been drawing an increasing number of undergraduates who are drawn to its lively mix of lab and lounge. The classroom-size space has become the location for computing clubs, tutoring services, and faculty groups.

Brian Poppy said the opening of the CAVE at the start of his junior year changed the dynamic in the student community almost overnight.

"Before then, you would maybe see a few people from your classes around, every once in a while, like right after class," said Poppy, now a graduate student. "Then all of a sudden, here is the place you can go and meet your colleagues, work out problems you don't fully understand, and grow as a computer scientist.

"It's a great resource."

One of the reasons for its success is that students have had a say in its setup and in its subsequent redesigns. They also serve as staff, providing tutoring and troubleshooting.

"Without me having to say a word, the students have created an environment that's completely helpful," said Sorensen. "I just went along for the ride."

Photos by Kara Donaldson



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