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March 21, 2023

Faculty Spotlight: Jennifer Wong-Ma and the Power of Community

Whether she’s meeting a colleague for coffee, asking students to perform a skit in class, or trying to pair IT professionals with computer science majors, Associate Professor of Teaching Jennifer Wong-Ma is bringing people together. “I keep coming back to that idea of community,” she says of her work to engage with faculty and students and bridge the gap between academia and industry.

Since coming to UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) in 2018, she has become the vice chair of undergraduate studies in the Department of Computer Science and has joined the advisory board of Women in Technology at UCI (WIT@UCI). She also serves as a faculty advisor for two student-run organizations, Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS) and Commit the Change.

More recently, Wong-Ma was named a member of the inaugural class of fellows of the UCI Faculty Academy for Teaching Excellence (FATE). Supported by the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI), FATE is a community of faculty from across campus who meet regularly to promote student success through teaching, advising campus leadership on how to advance teaching excellence.

Can you tell us a bit about FATE?
FATE has been a great opportunity for teaching-oriented faculty across the campus to gather and work together. This inaugural FATE class includes passionate teaching faculty from all disciplines — even in the hospital — coming together to talk about what we’re struggling with and what we see our fellow faculty struggling with in terms of teaching.

Honestly, the first meeting was just so refreshing. I saw a lot of familiar faces, people that I’ve interacted with across campus throughout the years, and having this opportunity to come together as teaching faculty, which Michael Dennin [vice provost for teaching and learning] really pushed for, was so nice. When we can speak collectively as a group, it can have a greater impact.

And what are you focusing on as a FATE fellow?
We formed three working groups, which are each made up of about eight to 10 faculty trying to tackle a specific area. My group is focusing on alternative assessments, so we’re thinking about assessments within our courses. Does the way that we have traditionally done assessments really meet the needs of students and learning?

We’re also looking at how students perceive assessments and exams versus how faculty perceive assessments and exams. We’re trying to provide guidelines — not requirements — with supporting data. For example, we might share data to show that when you put 80% of your course final grade on one exam, it hinders students and their ability to learn by creating a mental block. Then we can suggest alternatives backed by data and endorsed by other faculty.

We hope to provide a sort of white paper or working document to share advice with the campus community. That’s our goal for this academic year. The hardest part has actually been finding time for all of us to meet, but we’ve had a couple meetings so far and everybody’s pretty passionate about it, so I’m hopeful. Every time I go to one of these meetings, I learn something from somebody else. So just even the sharing of ideas helps create more of a teaching community.

And what about the Coffee Meets Teaching program you initiated?
One of the best things that I did when I became a new mom was join a mom’s group, because the second you see other people experiencing the same challenges you are, it normalizes your struggle. And as teachers, we’re often isolated in our classrooms, so we only see our own issues. But everybody is facing similar challenges, and by having conversations, we learn that we’re not alone and that there are a lot of ideas and support out there.

So Megan Linos of DTEI and I started the Coffee Meets Teaching program last quarter. It’s a DTEI event that gathers faculty together, and it’s almost like speed dating, where you get a minute to introduce yourself. They made up little cards for us, asking us to introduce who we are and the tools that we use in our classes. As you’re talking with someone, you can say, “Oh, you use Perusall? That’s something I’ve been thinking about. Can you share how you’re using it?” So it starts conversations to create that sense of community. I’m always telling my students that they need a community to support each other and their learning, and as faculty and teachers, we need that too, because there are just so many tools and techniques out there. DTEI gave participants a $10 gift card to Starbucks to encourage us to go have coffee with someone and continue the conversation.

It’s also great to get to see faculty from biology, chemistry and other departments across campus. I met a drama faculty member at the event, and we started talking about some of the things that I do in my class to engage my engineering students. She said, “so you put on a skit, you had a performance, you did a dramatic reading … you’re bringing theater into your classroom to help teach the students.” I hadn’t thought about it that way, but she was right!

How did you come up with those techniques?
I actually got into computer science because I was interested in theater. I did high school theater — not acting, because I didn’t like to be center stage, but as a stage manager. I built sets and did props throughout my entire high school career, and I wanted to go to college for theater, but my parents said, “no, that’s not a career.” [UCI offers a B.A. in drama with a concentration in stage management, so it is very much a career — but arguing with parents can be difficult.]

So I thought, “well, I’ve always liked computers,” and I wrote my college essay on bridging the gap between computers and theater and bringing computers into theater. When I went to college, I kind of drifted away from the theater, but it’s funny, because now I’m bringing theater into my computer science classroom! I just didn’t realize it until I was talking to the drama teacher. She said, “You’ve gone back to your roots in the things that you were passionate about! Now you’re center stage [as a teacher].” It was just a great conversation.

And that’s why I tell my students, “You never know where you’ll end up. Just think about your interests and how you can combine them to make great things.”

Professor Wong-Ma stands at the front of the class, holding a cup on her forehead. A student is trying to throw a ball into the cup.
Acting out the process of making an initial network connection between a client (the student) and server (Professor Wong-Ma). The server has a socket (cup on forehead) listening for incoming connections (the ball). As Wong-Ma explains to students, networking can be lossy, so not all client requests for connections (balls) make it to the server (into the cup) for processing.

Can you also talk about your involvement with WIT@UCI, WICS, and Commit the Change?
So for WIT, I try to bring an academic perspective into it. Most of the advisory board members are IT professionals at OIT [the Office of Information Technology] or at the hospital. [Founding ICS Dean and Professor Emeritus] Debra Richardson and I are on the academic side, so we’ve been trying to bring in that viewpoint. While it’s important to support women in technology and raise awareness about the lack of women in the ranks or moving into management, Debra and I are trying to also connect that with our students.

This spring, we’re going to be running the first-ever joint event with WIT and WICS together. WICS is holding a coffee chat event, where we’re going to have professionals in IT positions at different levels, hopefully from across the hospital and the school, coming to talk with students. We want the professionals to spend about 10 minutes talking with each student, sharing what it’s like to work in IT at the hospital or outlining their career path and any struggles they faced getting into IT management. We want the WICS students to be aware. They know they’re going to face challenges, so how do they tackle them?

WICS also runs “mentorship families,” where they have senior students mentor younger sophomore and freshmen students, so what I would love to see is IT professionals become a part of those mentorship families —one professional per family. Then students who are struggling with interviewing or job positions have someone they can talk to. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s where we hope this leads next year.

WIT is doing great things, including with their LEAP program and the Applause program, but now we’re trying to bring in a little bit of that academic side. And Commit the Change is also doing great things, building projects for nonprofits. They’re taking on three projects per year, and they’re continuing to grow. [Learn about the 2022-23 CTC projects.]

What do you love best about teaching?
I love being in the classroom and working together to understand something. The question of one student can lead to the question of another student, and it’s those community moments where they really learn. I keep coming back to that idea of community. It’s about helping students connect the dots to become engaged with the material.

We have lab days twice a week, where we have staff around to help the whole day. So students can come in for as long as they want to get assistance. And then two other days, the TAs and I hold back-to-back to office hours in the same room. So, four days a week, basically from eight or nine in the morning to five or six at night, students can drop in if they need help. They’re studying difficult topics, so we’ve created a space for everybody to learn and grow and support each other. I’m there about seven hours a week this quarter, which gives me opportunities to sit down with students one-on-one and have a conversation about the topics. By working with them directly, I can see the learning process, understand their struggles, and see their excitement and success. These “light bulb” moments are what all teachers live for.

For Women’s History Month, are there any women in STEM trailblazers you want to spotlight?
The main person who comes to mind at the moment is [ICS Professor] Sandy Irani, who was recently named an ACM Fellow for her work with quantum computing and who is now on leave [as associate director of the Simons Institute]. When you hear quantum computing, you think, “that’s untouchable!” But Sandy has this ability to take something that feels so complex and present it in a way that the students feel like they can understand it — they can really grasp it and learn.

She’s done a wonderful job with her zyBook [Discrete Mathematics] and 6D [online undergraduate course on Discrete Math for CS], and students really look up to her. They see her as a very successful computer scientist who is brilliant. And honestly, a lot of this feedback comes from my female students. This reminds me how important it is as female faculty to help guide our students. I don’t think of myself as a role model, but our female students really do look up to us.

Shani Murray