Drew Eastland ‘21
Imagine waking up in your dorm room, stepping outside, and seeing a tall modern building towering above you with the bright letters U-B-E-R lining its face. As you walk to class, you pass Twitter’s headquarters, and out the window of your classroom you can see Facebook executives walking to lunch.
This is just a taste of what twenty students will experience during Davidson in Silicon Valley this spring. Students will immerse themselves in the tech world through education, engagement, and networking. This spring will be the program’s first semester-long run.
The spring program will be a pilot, but last summer fourteen students went on an abbreviated version of the trip. The spring program will be more structured and last longer, but the programs also have a few similarities.
This spring in Silicon Valley, students will take four courses, including Critical Web Design, Introductory Computer Science, an English class about science fiction, and an independent study. Davidson faculty Dr. Owen Mundy, Dr. Raghu Ramanujan, Dr. Stacey Riemer, and Dr. Shireen Campbell will conduct the courses.
In typical liberal arts fashion, these courses will offer students more than just practical technological skills. Apart from learning coding and web design, students will explore how technology impacts the world at large.
“Part of the culture of Silicon Valley that I would critique is [the idea that] tech is wonderful and the solution to everything,” Dr. Campbell emphasized. “[Students] noted in the summer…there needed to be additional opportunity to talk about…the ethics of technology.”
The program was designed by Davidson’s Director of Innovation Initiatives Kristen Eshleman and comes in the wake of a larger push by the college toward innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology. This push is best exemplified by the creation of the college’s center for innovation, the Hurt Hub.
“As a college, we develop leaders in many fields,” Eshleman explained. “Our students and alumni increasingly see tech as a place to make an impact for good, but they have had a hard time breaking into tech upon graduation.”
Davidson students also played a role in pushing for and designing the program, including Zawwar Naseer ‘21, who became involved through Davidson’s student innovation and design team.
“Recently, there has been a large demand from [liberal arts college] students to want to be more prepared for a career in tech, so allowing them to study in Silicon Valley, the heart of tech in the US, for a semester is a logical first step,” Naseer said. “Fundamentally, the benefits and values of entrepreneurship directly line up with the Davidson mission as an institution.”
Last summer, fourteen Davidson students attended the first iteration of the program by traveling to Silicon Valley for six weeks. Their program only included two courses: Creative Web Design and Java Programming. These courses were extremely accelerated, and the students spent most of the time working on group technology innovation projects. They also visited several start-up offices.
“It was pretty much what we’d do in a semester crammed down into four weeks,” participant Jeri Adarquah-Yiadom ‘22 explained. “Some people struggled with that.”
The courses in the spring have been reengineered to focus more on different challenges in programing and thought process behind solving systemic issues in computing over an intense analysis and memorization of computer coding languages. This will give students a better knowledge of the “why” questions: “why computers,” “why technology,” and “what does this do for us,” rather than a question like “how do I code in Python?”
“I think jumping straight into [intense coding], especially when the program is designed […] for people who would want to end up in tech-adjacent jobs rather than in the tech field, is a big step for [many] people,” said Adarquad-Yiadom. “I think [restructuring] will be pretty effective in achieving what the program was aiming to do.”
Both the summer program and the upcoming spring program will feature networking events with former Davidson alumni. According to Campbell, every student who participates in the spring program will be guaranteed an internship interview.
Adarquah-Yiadom felt the networking over the summer gave him solid connections he could leverage going forward. “Up until [Davidson in Silicon Valley], networking was kind of a mystical term,” Adarquah-Yiadom said. “There’s a Davidson alum software engineer from Amazon who I’ve definitely kept in contact with.”
Keelan Bailey ‘22, a sophomore who applied to the program, hopes to gain skills to complement his economics major. He also mentioned that the unique learning environment appealed to him.
“I applied for this program to learn more about technology and computer science…to apply to my economics major,” Bailey explained. “I’m most excited to experience the way the learning environment is more interactive than lecture based.”
This spring, Davidson professors will not be involved every day either. Campbell will be on the ground in Silicon Valley for the first week, but then will be Skyping with students, so she can still teach courses at Davidson. Due to his commitment to teaching classes at Davidson, Mundy will have a similar arrangement with the students plus some additional help from hired professional instructors from the Entangled group who partnered with Davidson. Entangled’s mission is to connect liberal arts students to the tech world.
The program is open to any majors, and professors involved hope to encourage students who aren’t as STEM-focused to still consider the program.
According to Mundy, there’s an idea out there that to work in Silicon Valley, you have to be a coding genius, but “there are a lot of different people in the industry who are not coders,” and the program will expose students to those opportunities as well.
Professors involved were adamant that Davidson students need to be aware of this industry – even the negative sides – to enter the world equipped with the skills to address modern problems.
Some liberal arts educators have been opposed to embracing the technology industry.
“You are still going into a world where technology [exists],” Campbell said. “I would rather send Davidson students out into the world having thought about and confronted the challenges of tech than not thinking about them.”
Both professors and former students involved say the program is worth considering.
“Having an under-the-hood understanding of how the tech world works — even if you don’t go off and become a computer scientist or a programmer — having that experience like that is essential to anyone in any field,” Mundy said.
“I’d definitely say it was a life changing experience.” Adarquah-Yiadom emphasized. “It definitely changed the way I look at learning and how I actually learn.”