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Computer Science Meets City Challenges

Dr. Carlos Monroy discusses a collaboration with the City of Houston at the Computer Science Club meeting.In today’s classrooms, students prefer applying theory to real-world problems by using technology. This is the pinnacle of teaching computer science to college learners.

Dr. Carlos Monroy, assistant professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, recognizes the value of solving real-world problems with real-world data solutions.

Revamping the Computer Science Program

Monroy adopted a pedagogical approach to computer science called ‘situated learning,’ which incorporates all aspects — the location, the time, the community and the content — of the context in which a student learns. Additionally, Monroy wished to introduce hands-on learning experiences into his teaching.

“It’s a great pedagogical approach because they can relate what they learn in the classroom and apply it to a real situation,” Monroy said. “And simultaneously, real-life problems can inspire them to apply and to develop what they are learning in the class or even develop theoretical frameworks.”

Real-Life Problems, Data Solutions

When he taught a Foundations of Data Science class, Monroy found the perfect way to expose students to real problems. While searching for data sets to use for class projects, Monroy happened upon the City of Houston’s Open Data Portal. The Portal, which is open to the public, collects data covering areas such as traffic, waste management or construction permits.

“I thought that we could use some of these data sets for the students to work through the semester on developing data analytics solutions while learning the foundations of some models,” Monroy said.

As academic adviser to the Celts Computing Club, Monroy presented some of these solutions to the club to bring these solutions outside the classroom, where they could span more than just data analytics.

“So, it could be a mobile application, a game, a website, any computer-based technology using these data sets, because they are open to the public. And the students liked the idea, so we started. But I wanted to make it sustainable, more formal and long-term.”

New Avenues for Collaboration

To achieve this, Monroy wants to explore potential avenues for collaboration between the Celts Computing Club and the City of Houston. He contacted friend Mark Cueva ’08, who works for the City. Cueva introduced him to Jesse Bounds ’05, Director of Innovation. An alumnus, Bounds now oversees the Mayor’s Office of Innovation, which uses data and technology to improve Houstonians’ lives.

“The City has other research partnerships with major universities in Houston and we’ve had a great deal of success through those partnerships solving important city challenges,” Bounds said. “Most of those solutions were developed by faculty, researchers or students in STEM. We were thrilled to learn that UST was building a strong technology and data competency, and aligning the program to community interests.”Dr. Carlos Monroy and Jesse Bounds pose for a photo with members of the Computer Science Club at a meeting.

The C5 Initiative

This initiative was named the Celts Computing Club + City Challenges, or the C5 Initiative, which emphasizes the club's collaboration with the City. Ideas have already been suggested, such as solving homelessness or beginning a potential project involving Census 2020.

“UST is perfectly primed for innovation,” Bounds said. “It’s a vibrant and close-knit community of people from diverse backgrounds colliding together to learn, share ideas and make a positive impact on the world. I foresee, with its proximity to the Innovation Hub in Midtown and the ‘Be Bold’ philosophy of UST’s faculty and leadership, that UST will become a renowned source of innovation for social good in the future.”

Story by Katie Fleming