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Sitterson houses collaborative computer science lab space

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Community members of the UNC Computer Science Experience Labs (CSXL) pose for a portrait on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Sitterson Hall.

In Sitterson Hall, home of the UNC computer science department, a storage room full of computer servers has turned into an accessible experience lab for students and faculty. 

Professor Kris Jordan is the director of the Computer Science Experience Labs program. Pitched to the College of Arts and Sciences last October, it has seen over 2,200 visitors in the past six weeks. 

“The undergraduate experience labs are aiming to be a technical experience accelerator with real world technologies, as well as a community hub and a co-working space,” he said.

Junior Christine Mendoza, an ambassador for the CSXL, said she thinks of the community as a type of computer science-focused makerspace.

Jordan stressed the importance of an environment that is built specifically for assisting undergraduates with professional projects — a space that now exists in Sitterson 156.

“Undergraduates have become not only our largest student population, our largest population of people, but they are also the largest employment group in terms of our undergraduate learning assistants,” he said. 

The lab takes inspiration from a space in the basement of Sitterson called the ‘App Lab,' but is able to hold more equipment and participants.  

The department plans to continue renovations to ensure large collaborative undergraduate group projects, including reserving other rooms for ‘learning labs’ intended for office hours. The lab also expects to see new furniture in the space by the end of the semester. 

The CSXL’s technology and renovations are funded through student fees and donations from the College of Arts and Sciences. Current resources available to students include virtual reality headsets and high-resolution monitors. 

“It's much better to work in collaboration on a second monitor and in a space where you're surrounded by other people who are working on similar problems than hunched over a monitor,” Jordan said.

Sadie Amato is a teaching assistant for Jordan’s introduction to programming class and uses the workroom within the lab to hold her office hours. Amato said she always sees a few familiar faces at CSXL. 

“It's nice to have the company of people I know around me while I'm getting some work done,” she said. 

In addition to a workspace, the lab also holds one or two-day workshops led by software engineers in the workforce. The most recent workshop was led by one of the creators of the iOS Pinterest app. 

“These are opportunities for students to gain earlier exposure to practical technologies that they can use to build personal projects, maybe take on personal research projects, and build a portfolio that will ultimately help them in the workforce development,” Jordan said. 

Amato said the lab has allowed computer science majors to move past the theory of software engineering and into more advanced real-world applications.

“They're kind of organizing workshops based on size, based on skills that aren't always taught in the curriculum, or maybe students can't do yet because they don't have the prereq,” she said. 

CSXL is also a ‘historic investment’ in the resources of UNC’s computer science department that will continue to grow in outreach, Jordan said. 

Mendoza said she hopes to see more computer resources available for community use and a wider variety of students taking advantage of the new space. She added that it would be beneficial for both undergraduate and graduate students to work together on projects through the lab as a collaboration between the two student populations. 

The new space and advanced technology will allow the overall computer department to continue expanding, Amato said.

“I hope it becomes an even better space for people who want to collaborate with each other on outside projects, because I know that is an important thing that is often not emphasized enough,” she said.

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