Building community in computer science

Michael Malinowski considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Growing up in California in the 1960s – before schools were required to provide special services to those with learning disabilities – he said it was fortunate that his dyslexia was recognized early, and that his parents ensured that he received an education tailored to his needs.

“I was lucky. My mom was a real strong advocate for me,” Malinowski said. “I could have ended up in a bad situation.”

He was diagnosed with dyslexia at age four, attended a school for people with learning disabilities and was eventually mainstreamed into a public high school. A 40-year-old graduate student in computer science at PSU, Malinowski decided to do something about a perceived disconnection of resources available to computer science majors – resources he said can be crucial to the success of a student with a learning disability. He and a friend have launched a web site aimed at providing “a one-stop shop” to help computer science majors with or without learning disabilities.

The site, named “Progr[H]ammer,” includes links to essential web sites, advice on how to find and build relationships with computer science mentors, and other information about how to better connect with the Portland State computer science community.

Malinowski said the name Progr[H]ammer derives from a metaphor that describes his vision of the site’s function: it will act as a tool, like a hammer, that helps bridge the gap between various programming resources.

The help is there, Malinowski said, but sometimes difficult to find.

“It’s like a hydra head,” he said. “[The different resources] all have the right idea but they’re not connected.”

Nearly three million children in the United States have a learning disability, many of whom will drop out of high school or never attend a four-year college, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. A 1999 study found that two-thirds of individuals with a learning disability were unqualified to attend a four-year college.

Having already overcome considerable obstacles to attend college, Malinowski said the success of a student with a learning disability depends on the student’s ability to fully and efficiently utilize the resources available to them.

“If we want to build bridges that stand that test of time, we had better be sure that we are connecting strong communities with stable resources,” Malinowski said.

Another goal of the site is to provide tools to learn programming basics in “as many different alternative approaches as we can get,” according to Malinowski’s partner Tim Denney. Currently, the site includes diagrams of data structure and even poetry designed to help students remember key aspects of programming.

“Some people need different ways of explaining the same thing,” Malinowski said. “You need to explain things many different ways.”

A third objective is to provide a place where programming students can connect students with the greater computer science community. The computer science department often neglects addressing the frustrations of learning to program, Malinowski said, adding that as a person with a learning disability, finding and building connections with mentors and other students is crucial to being a successful student.

The pair hope to expand their web site to include sound, video and message boards. The group had been limited by space, when Malinowski hosted the web site using the 50 megabytes of web space allotted to every PSU student, but was upgraded to 100 megabytes by Cynthia Brown, the computer science chair and project adviser.

Brown said the group approached her with the project idea after having already created the initial site on Malinowski’s web space. After looking at Progr[H]ammer, she thought it would be a great resource to computer science students and granted Denney and Malinowski more web space. Malinowski said they now have more than 100 megabytes and plenty of space to grow.

“They built an amazing project basically on their own that helps students who are dyslexic and others too,” Brown said. “There are a lot of resources and systems that a person needs to learn how to use in order to be successful. This gives them a nice tool.”

With the additional space, Denney hopes to design the site to be easily updated, like an open-source wiki, so that any student with an account under the computer science department can help expand and improve the site.

“Even the neediest person out there probably has some sort of cool idea,” Malinowski said.

He has approached the student senate with the idea, hoping to garner support and possibly find some funding. The trio is not interested, however, in applying for funding from the Student Organization Council or Student Fee Committee.

“We don’t want to be a club,” Malinowski said. “We’re not trying to supplant what other clubs do. I’m trying to direct people who are looking for community to groups who provide that.”

Progr[H]ammer can be found at