Cosmos Boekell Comes Full Circle to Lead CS Instructional Laboratory (CSIL)

October 23, 2019

University computer labs have changed a lot since the 1990’s. Now that most students have their own computer, they no longer need to go to a shared bank of desktops to write a paper, check email, or use this crazy new thing called the “world wide web.” But, students and teachers still need uniform workstations for courses on programming and systems, access to specialized software for design, data analysis, and graphics, and tutors that can help with complicated computational projects.

The Computer Science Instructional Laboratory (CSIL) has evolved through all of these eras, meeting the needs of the CS department and students across UChicago campus. Since its pioneering move to the John Crerar Library building in 2013 (five years before the rest of the department), CSIL has expanded both in size and focus. This year, the laboratory also boasts new leadership, as Cosmos Boekell assumes the director position two decades after working in CSIL as a tutor in the late ‘90s. 

Boekell takes over from Bill Sterner, who directed CSIL for nearly 25 years before his retirement at the end of the 2018-19 school year. It was Sterner who first hired Boekell, an alumnus of UChicago who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, as a tutor at the original CSIL in Ryerson, when it was informally known as the “Mac Lab.” After two years with the laboratory, Boekell moved to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, serving as a System Administrator and Manager until returning to UChicago this summer. 

Today, CSIL features five labs, two macOS and three Linux laboratories, each with 20 student workstations and one teacher station, as well as additional desktops for small groups and individuals to reserve, scanners, video equipment, and lendable accessories. The lab is also now part of the Media Arts, Data, and Design (MADD) Center on the first floor of Crerar, sharing space with the Weston Game Lab, the Hack Arts Lab, and facilities for GIS, virtual reality, and data visualization. 

The larger space and new neighbors have inspired Boekell’s vision for the future of CSIL and how it serves its users. Recently, the facility has hosted coding tutorials for high school students, and expanded its software roster to include programs that support artistic work in the other MADD Center units.

“CSIL is part of the CS department and our priority is first and foremost to the CS department student and faculty curricula,” Boekell said. “But I do want to make it clear that we are a resource for the whole community at large, both at UChicago and even the broader Chicago community, with programs like ProjectCSGIRLS and other UChicago outreach programs.” 

But beneath the new look, Boekell is passionate about preserving the student-tutor model that has operated CSIL since even before Sterner’s tenure, when the laboratory was founded in December of 1984 by instructor and newspaper columnist Don Crabb, Professor Stuart Kurtz and other CS faculty. CSIL tutors are more like mentors, Boekell said, providing compassionate assistance to help users find and utilize the right software tools to accomplish their tasks. They’re also essential for the management of the laboratory, providing real-world IT experience to complement and try out the skills and theories students learn about in their coursework.

“CSIL is definitely a place where students can really get into applying some of that theory and learn from an administrative point of view about day-to-day operations of, how to run a lab, and provide what's needed for curricular activities,” Boekell said. “There are also opportunities for design. If they want, CSIL tutors can take their programming knowledge and say ‘okay, here's a problem, let me design something to resolve it.’ CSIL has a long and beautiful legacy of that type of student-led action.”

Certainly the 2019-20 school year will keep the tutors and CSIL’s five classrooms humming. In addition to long-running undergraduate and master’s degree staples such as Introduction to Computer Science, Introduction to Computer Systems, and Computer Science with Applications, there are newer courses such as Introduction to Data Science, Computers for Learning, Machine Learning for Public Policy, and even a Virtual Reality Production class taught by Marc Downie from the Department of Media Studies.

“There's a lot of interesting things percolating and it's an exciting time to be here,” Boekell said. “I landed at a great time for some positive change. I expect a lot of innovation and I'm trying to figure out how CSIL plays a part in that.”