Colby Students Find a Gateway to Advanced Computer Science Degrees

Natural Sciences3 min. read

A partnership between the College and Portland’s Roux Institute offers options for those who want to “dive deeper”

Roux Institute
The Roux Institute campus is located at 100 Fore Street in Portland’s historic Old Port neighborhood.
By Christina NunezPhotography by Jasper Lowe
August 10, 2022

In his third year at Colby, Bernie Sander ’21 signed up for Professor of Computer Science Dale Skrien’s Data Structures and Algorithms spring course. Sander, who graduated with a B.S. in mathematical sciences, became interested in learning the logic behind computer applications that people use every day and considered a second degree in computer science.

But engineering coursework he had already completed for a dual-degree program with Columbia University didn’t map to that. Instead, thanks to the advice of his Colby professors, he enrolled in the master of computer science program at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University in Portland, Maine, in fall 2021.

Sander was among the first Colby students to take advantage of an evolving academic partnership between the College and Roux. Northeastern launched the Roux Institute in January 2020 with the goal of creating an innovation hub devoted to deepening and expanding the digital economy in Portland, the state of Maine, and northern New England. It offers master’s degree programs in computer science, data science, cybersecurity, and other tech fields.

Colby undergrads can get a head start on a master’s degree by taking classes at Roux. They can also jump into computer science or data science via Align, a set of bridge courses in each field that helps students with little or no tech coursework to get started on a master’s.

“It’s definitely been nice to be able to immerse myself completely in this field and dive deeper,” Sander said.

Stephanie Taylor, associate professor of computer science at Colby, has referred students to the new program at Roux. She says the institute offers students a chance to go deeper into machine learning and data science, for example. But they need to be ready to handle the challenge of either commuting or taking courses online at a different school.

“It’s about as much work as a Colby course, but I think it ends up feeling like more because students are taking a step outside what they usually do,” Taylor said. “This really is preparation for a more advanced degree, in the sense that they have to be more independent in order to succeed at it.”

The interior of the Roux Institute in Portland. Colby undergrads can get a head start on a master’s degree by taking classes through a partnership with Roux.

Bruce Maxwell, who was a Colby professor and chair of the Computer Science Department from 2007 to 2020, was instrumental in designing the curriculum for the computer science and data science master’s programs at Roux. He remains a research scientist at Colby and is now a teaching professor and assistant director of computing programs at Northeastern University in Seattle.

“This is a great opportunity for Colby students to get access to a larger curriculum than they would have access to otherwise,” Maxwell said. The Align program, he added, “has been a powerful entryway into computer science for people who discover it late.”

Brendan Martin ’22 took courses in computer graphics and computer vision with Maxwell at Roux and spent the summer at Westbrook-based animal diagnostics and software company IDEXX as an intern doing work related to computer vision—the science of teaching computers to “see” so that they can classify images or generate them. IDEXX is one of several corporate partners with the Roux Institute.

In the fall, Martin will start the institute’s computer science master’s program. The classes he took at Roux as an undergrad confirmed he wanted to work in computer vision, “which is something I suspected I would enjoy, but I never really got a chance to work on it for a sustained amount of time,” he said. He added that the classes were also good preparation for his internship.

Yifan “Diane” Zhang ’22, who graduated from Colby with a computer science degree and plans to pursue a master’s in computer science at Northwestern University this fall, is at Roux this summer as a research assistant with Associate Teaching Professor Jonathan Mwaura, using machine learning to simulate the foraging behaviors of different animals.

Diane Zhang ’22 in front of the Roux Institute, where she’s spent the summer as a research assistant. Zhang is using her experience at Roux as a springboard for pursuing an advanced degree in computer science at Northwestern University this fall.

An artificial intelligence seminar with Davis Institute for AI Director Amanda Stent, taken in the second semester of her senior year at Colby, particularly inspired Zhang. “That class really added to my knowledge of machine learning and AI,” Zhang said. The internship with Mwaura appealed to her because she wants research experience ahead of pursuing a Ph.D.

As the program gains traction in Portland, Taylor sees it expanding on Mayflower Hill, as well. “I’m hoping that as the program grows, and we have more students doing it, that we can have a group of students that can meet with each other and form a sub-community around that,” she said. “It’s an awesome opportunity.”

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