Company-sponsored computer science courses offer students new way to learn


Enrollment in Internet and Web Systems, Scalable and Cloud Computing has more than doubled from 2010




A few School of Engineering and Applied Science courses are enabling Penn students to join the exclusive ranks of those who create internet applications at companies like Google and Facebook.

The courses — Scalable and Cloud Computing, open to undergraduates, and Internet and Web Systems, open to seniors and graduate students — provide the chance to work on the technologies utilized by these top internet companies, which for most is a very difficult task because of the complex science and expensive resources involved.

By providing students with remote access to the large-scale data resources of technology companies, these offerings are unlike traditional computer science courses, which typically only utilize in-house resources.

“You need special techniques to work at systems of such large scale — like the way you program a computer the size of a football field is very different from the way you program a single workstation,” said SEAS assistant professor Andreas Haeberlen, who teaches both courses.

Through Haeberlen’s direct ties to companies like Akamai and indirect connections via his former students who are working at places like Google, Facebook and Amazon, he is able to keep the courses abreast with the rapid changes in technology.

“Grants from Amazon in the form of free credits allow students to use Amazon Web Services — their cloud and web infrastructure for their homework and projects,” Haeberlen explained.

For their final project in the spring, the students in the upper-level course used Amazon’s resources to create a cloud-based search engine, or a “mini-Google.” For the undergraduate-level course, which is currently in session, students are in the process of creating their own social networking sites like Facebook.

Last semester, Google sponsored an award for the best project in Internet and Web Systems, and this semester, Facebook is sponsoring an award for the best project in Scalable and Cloud Computing.

The prospect of interacting with engineers at these firms — along with the doors these relationships might open for jobs — is a primary motivation for many of the students.

“Having Google engineers judge your search engine is a very giddy feeling,” said 2012 Engineering masters recipient Siddartha Sengupta, who is currently working as a technology analyst at Bank of America.

Students who have taken these classes claim that they are some of the most difficult — and yet most rewarding — courses they have taken career-wise.

“Being a telecom major, it was difficult for me to get into top software firms. I created a search engine for this course, and the things I picked up doing that helped me get into Electronic Arts,” said 2012 Engineering masters recipient Nikhil Menon, who is currently a software developer at EA.

The courses also feature guest lectures from engineers at large firms, many of whom had taken these very courses during their time at Penn.

Industry ties and the prospect of working with cutting-edge technology has added to the growing popularity of these courses. According to Haeberlen, Internet and Web Systems grew from 39 students in 2010 to 88 in 2012, and Scalable and Cloud Computing went from 11 to 44 over the same time period.

“In the course evaluations, the two most common responses I get are ‘this was the hardest course I’ve ever taken’ and ‘this was the best course I’ve ever taken,’” Haeberlen said.

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