By Nicole Capozziello
Published June 10, 2020
Eight graduate students from the Republic of Latvia were among the many students at the University at Buffalo this spring to experience the transition to online learning in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Alla Anohina-Naumeca, Katrina Boločko, Uldis Donins, Henrihs Gorskis, Jevgenijs (Eugene) Proskurins, Māra Pudāne, Liga Zarina and Solvita Zariņa arrived on campus in January of 2020, as the second group of participants in a new collaborative program that aims to train Latvian faculty members in U.S. teaching methods in computer science.
“This is the biggest effort on the part of Latvia in general–educational institutions, the commercial side, the private sector, and the government–to coalesce around IT, an issue that’s important for the future economic development of the country,” says Voldemārs (Arvids) Innus, former UB vice president and chief information officer, and one of the initiators of the program. “And it’s exciting that the University at Buffalo is a part of it.”
The students hail from Riga Technical University, Riga Stradiņš University and University of Latvia. While all of the participants’ current careers center around IT, the group included professors, a dean, an actuary, and information systems staff, all united in their passion for IT education and industry, and expanding their skillsets for the benefit of Latvian society.
“A main goal of the program is to provide faculty members with the core knowledge and skills necessary to be able to teach in an interdisciplinary program,” says Jeffrey Errington, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and program liaison. “We are tailoring the course load to each participant’s unique background and interests, drawing on the breadth of courses offered at UB.”
Participants take part in two, nonconsecutive semesters on campus, during which they gain first-hand exposure to the technical programs and pedagogy of a computer science program at a major U.S. research institution. After the first semester, the participants return to Latvia to integrate what they have learned, and then come back to UB to complete a second, more specialized semester.
The foundation of the first semester’s academic course load is comprised of SEAS courses: STEM Communications, Computing Education Research, and two upper level courses in CSE. Students also take an interdisciplinary course in the School of Management, intended to give them a broad understanding of business and a base of skills needed for roles in areas such as project management.
Celebrating interdisciplinary learning as much as possible, the students can take a wide variety of courses, including Method and Theory in Archeology, Social Network Analytics, and Intro to Cognitive Science.
“My favorite part of the program has been the chance to look at the study process from the student perspective but with the eyes of an instructor,” says Māra Pudāne, a researcher and PhD student from Riga Technical University.
“The biggest takeaways for me were from the foundation of engineering education course, which helped me put together the puzzle of creating course content and successfully delivering it to the students,” says Uldis Donins, the head of Riga Stradiņš University’s IT department’s Information Systems Unit. “The extensive use of group assignments and group projects in courses, including interdisciplinary courses like STEM communications, was also very interesting to me. With my experience and background in the software development industry, I can clearly see how students and their future employers are benefitting from evolving their soft skills.”
Participants not only had the opportunity to be immersed in an American university classroom–which they say is both more personalized and demands a greater frequency of smaller assignments–from the student side, but to take part in other opportunities for learning, entertainment and community. Before the transition to online learning in March, the Latvian scholars enjoyed taking part in on-campus events, including a therapy dog visit, and attending faculty candidate seminars.
“Among other good experiences that I have had or observed at UB, I’ve been impressed with the availability of extensive library resources and services, the option to get help at the Center for Excellence in Writing, the numerous seminars and workshops, and the opportunities at the sports center,” says Liga Zarina, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Latvia.
Latvia has been a leader in IT since its time in the Soviet Union. However, IT everywhere has greatly changed over the last couple of decades, and so have the skills needed to adapt, succeed, and endure, as both a professional and an organization. According to Innus, who’s been involved in education in Latvia since the 90s, the skills that were highly sought after and marketable 30 years ago–namely centered on coding–have greatly expanded.
“Today it’s important to have a broad base of knowledge and skills, including the ability to work successfully within teams, interact with other teams and understand the big picture,” says Innus. He says that in general, education in the United States has historically been more interdisciplinary than its European counterparts.
A recognition of this reality led the Latvian government to search for an ideal collaborative partner with whom to build on their strengths.
Seeds for the program were planted in April of 2018, when a group from Riga, including the Vice Rector of Research from Riga Technical University, the Deans of Computer Science from both Riga Technical University and the University of Latvia, and a representative from the Latvian Ministry of Economics, all came to campus to discuss a potential partnership with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. They had reached out to Innus, who’s been stewarding a strong relationship between UB and the Riga Business School for decades, about the possibility of collaboratively creating an interdisciplinary program.
The Latvian government considered schools from around the world, and SEAS was ultimately selected as the best match. This program is just beginning and stakeholders in Latvia and in Buffalo are excited to grow it over the next few years.
"I am delighted that UB is continuing our three-decades-long collaboration with partners in Latvia to develop and deliver this exciting new interdisciplinary program in IT education. We take great pride in having been a founding partner in the development of the highly successful Riga Business School and welcome the opportunity to strengthen our engagement in Latvia through this mutually beneficial new initiative," says John Wood, UB interim vice provost of international education.
“What’s really exciting is that this effort has now been broadened by the Latvian government into the Advanced Digital Excellence Strategy for the country,” says Innus. “What we’ve already achieved is the foundation for a broader strategy–one that may lead to a more long-term and deeper association between Riga and Buffalo.”