Peer teaching experience

James Cameron, E21, and Josefine Tijssen, E21, designed and taught a first-year seminar on cybersecurity through the Experimental College's Explorations program.
James Cameron, E21
James Cameron, E21, participating in practice teaching prior to the start of the Fall 2020 semester. Photo taken by ExCollege Assistant Director, Amy Goldstein.

Each semester, the Experimental College's Explorations program offers teams of rising juniors and seniors the opportunity to design and teach a weekly seminar course to first-year students.

Computer science seniors James Cameron and Josefine Tijssen co-taught a Fall 2020 course, Exploring Cybersecurity: Technology and Policy. The course introduced students to the field of cybersecurity, from insider threat and password cracking to the GDPR and other privacy policies, with the hope of making people aware of how well the web keeps them safe.

The following interview took place between James and the Experimental College:

What inspired you to teach an Explorations course? And why did you choose your topic?

I was a TA (Teaching Assistant) for various Computer Science classes. It was there I learned I love teaching people, but it was such a cramped role of just helping with homework or debugging code and I felt I didn't get to do the fun stuff as much. Teaching an ExCollege class was such a natural extension for that love of teaching that it was really a no-brainer. Also, massive credit to my teaching partner for pushing me through the application process and being an awesome person that I wanted to spend more time with. Teaching with a friend is such an awesome experience!

We both specialized pretty heavily in security and were confident enough in our knowledge that we felt we could impart something to our students. And the very best part of that assumption is that we were so wrong to believe that we knew "enough." We learned so much from our students as they researched and linked articles and the like. So, the intense amount of foreknowledge was not the requirement we thought it would be, but our interest in the topic carried us the rest of the way.

What’s one thing you hope your students took away from your class?

Computer Security is a big topic, where people spend their entire careers working on a subset of it. So, we knew no one was coming out of our class as a master. The biggest thing we wanted people to know was the true breadth of the subject. If people came into the class thinking that Computer Security was "hacking" and nothing else, we wanted them to leave knowing that any major from electrical engineering to international relations had a place in the field. Further, we wanted to present these different topics as interestingly as possible so people would get a sense of which parts they did like, and how they could take that interest further into Tufts by taking a variety of classes that do deep dives into things we only touched on.

Would you recommend peer teaching to other Engineering students?

I really would. The impressive thing from teaching Computer Security is how in-depth you really could go and have students still follow along, ask insightful questions, and demonstrate mastery. It’s really fulfilling to take a topic you struggled with - a topic that really is difficult and nuanced - and effectively presenting it to people who are also starting from zero. It gives you a sense of understanding that's greater than any sort of test or problem set because you've effectively communicated the material. Additionally, engineers don't get enough chances to practice communication and the ExCollege is a great way to do that, too!

What do you think of how computer security is depicted in movies?

The fun thing about how hacking is represented in media is that it really does need to be exaggerated. Most offensive computer security stuff ("hacking", stealing passwords, etc.) is really boring to watch. It's very mentally stimulating and fulfilling to do it and pull things off, but that's not captured when you're watching someone else do it. You run a program or you spend hours researching a vulnerability or something akin to that. So, in media I've seen, computer security is either done unrealistically or it's just not there. And I'm grateful for that – I wouldn't want to watch an 11-hour movie of an analyst spending 10 hours and 30 minutes researching and an extra half hour typing code.

If you were to teach on a topic completely unrelated to engineering, what would it be?

Concepts in video game design. I've never made a game, but I am really immersed in video games and have been for a decade or more. Recreationally, I watch a lot of video essays on game design and the topic as a whole is super interesting to me. Once a week I'd assign a different game (free or comped) for people to play and we'd talk about what decisions in the design worked, what design choices didn't, things like that.

What song would you play when you walk into a room?

“The Starting Line” by Neil Cicierega

Check out the ExCollege website for more information, or access the application to propose your own course! Completed materials are due Friday, March 12, 2021 for the Fall 2021 semester.

Computer Science