Students Report Repetitive Stress Injury After Problem Set

* Students given three weeks for assignment, TF says

A recent assignment in Computer Sciences 50: "Introduction to Computer Sciences I" strained more than just the minds of some students.

Several students in CS 50 said they developed Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) after completing the most recent weekly assignment for the class, which was due last week.

A sophomore enrolled in the course, who asked to remain anonymous, said she developed RSI after spending about 45 to 60 hours working on the eighth assignment for the course.

"This was a new assignment, but it took a lot of time," she said. "I got RSI shortly after I finished it."

Alan F. Abola '98, one of the two head teaching fellows (TFs) for CS 50 and a CS concentrator, said the assignment required a lot of typing but noted that this was true of the eighth assignments in past years.


"[Assignment eight] involves a lot of typing and it would have involved a lot of debugging as well," he said. "[The work is] a lot heavier from the other assignments from earlier in the year."

But Abola said the difficulty of the assignment was balanced with the fact that students were given almost three weeks to work on it.

"It was a little bit more intensive," Abola said. "We gave them more time than on the other assignments."

But another sophomore in the class, who also said she developed RSI from the assignment and asked to remain anonymous, said the extra time was not sufficient to finish the program.

"It was a very long assignment--I watched people hand it in and it was just stacks of pages," she said. "I worked on it for like 45 hours...[and I] didn't finish it."

She added that the assignment was distributed right before Thanksgiving break. But the student said that because it is difficult to complete CS assignments without the guidance of a TF, she was unable to complete the project over the short vacation.

"You need a TF to help you when you get stuck," she said. "You just kind of have to work until it's done. You can't spread it out that easily."

Jon H. Grenzke '98, who is the other head TF for CS 50, acknowledged that assignment eight was time-consuming, he said he believed it was possible to spread out the work enough so that students did not harm themselves.

"I think it's certainly doable to spread it out so you don't do yourself harm," he said.

Grenzke, who is an applied math and economics concentrator, added that

assignment eight was much shorter than assignments that students in upper-level computer science courses must complete.

"[Assignment eight was] by far the longest assignment that anyone in CS 50 had," he said. "But in terms of fitting in with the rest of CS courses, it's not an extraordinarily a long assignment."

Assistant Professor of Computer Science J. Bradley Chen, who is the primary lecturer for the class, said that the eighth assignment in CS 50 has typically been the most challenging assignment in the class.

"I think that a lot of students had a lot of difficulty with assignment's always the hardest assignment," he said. "We want to give them a kind of feel for writing a longer program."

But Chen said that the program was not designed to take students a long period of time to complete.

He said that three course TFs and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer '83, who taught the course for many years, were asked to complete the assignment before it was distributed to the class. They determined "that the assignment was well within the range" of the abilities of the students, Chen said.

Chen said that if students used a "sound design" in creating the program, they would not have to write as much code as many of them did.

"The amount of code that they actually had to write was actually not that much if they wrote it an elegant way," he said.

"On the other hand, if a student started with a design that from the start wasn't very good, it would take a lot more code to implement it and they might have a lot more trouble getting it to work," he added.

Abola said that the complaint is not completely unexpected.

"I wouldn't attribute it to the assignment in particular although the assignment involves more typing than [others have] this year," he said. "It's not the first [complaint the students have had]."

Abola said he thinks that the students are complaining about RSI more this year than in past years because they are becoming more aware of the problem.

But according to Dr. Christopher M. Coley, chief of medicine at University Health Services (UHS), students who are taking a class that involves excessive typing are at risk for getting RSI.

"[People] who do binge typing...are putting themselves at risk for RSI," he said. "Computer science is something that is probably epidemiologically more at risk."

Abola said that students who are having RSI problems are not being exempted from the remainder of their assignments. But he added that they are pointed to UHS so they can get a typist to do the work for them.

"As of yet, no extensions [are being given].... There may be individual cases which may be being considered but I'm not involved in that," he said. "The remaining work is doable with a typist."

Chen said that it has yet to be determined whether the assignment will be given again next year when he teaches the course.

"If we use this assignment again, and it's not clear that we will...we'll try to make this assignment as easy as we can for the students," he said