Piazza’s STEM Student Collaboration Tool Now Helping Job Hunters

From Wiki-like Q&As to a Digital Career Fair

Pooja Sankar, CEO of Piazza.

Since launching in 2011, Piazza has been changing the way students work together online. Piazza is a free academic service that uses wiki-like pages where students collaborate on answers to questions posed by peers.

Earlier this year Pooja Sankar, CEO of Piazza, unveiled a new tool to help students on the job hunt: Piazza Careers. The new service looks to parlay the 1.25 million STEM student users into the next best digital job fair since Linkedin. However, there is still much to learn about how Piazza can help transform the STEM education landscape.

The Wiki-like Study Tool

Questions answered on a wiki-like page edited by students and controlled by Professors and TAs.

What is unique to Piazza is that it drops the forum format seen in so many other educational collaboration and social tools used on the internet. Sankar says, “The Wiki-like format closely models face to face group interactions which create cohesive responses. Where as in forums it may be difficult to follow the thread of comments that answer a question … One student can answer, another will enhance that answer, and after iterations a professor can come and endorse the answer.”

She adds, “Often after a professor has endorsed, or created their own answer there is still meaningful discussions in the follow up section below the wiki style responses.”

This is all done in real-time on any browser (even mobile) which Sankar says fixes the engagement problems that other software like Blackboard lacks, for it is that real-time ability that makes engagement possible. To assist this real-time engagement, Piazza provides a history slider where students and faculty can see the evolution of the answer.

“What I like best about Piazza is that it helps to organize and best utilize student’s questions in the course,” says Prof. Amy Gottfried from the University of Michigan. “They are all in one spot, reasonably searchable, and it also allows students to respond. Without Piazza student questions only help those that send emails, meet after class, or can make office hours. Piazza is assessable by everyone in the course and no one needs to repeat themselves.”

Students that are taking math classes or courses requiring formulas are able to use La Tex equation editors. Additionally, experienced La Tex users can even hardcode it into the response to save time.

Finally, using LTI integration Piazza can also be integrated into learning systems. This is perfect for distance learning courses or MOOCs, which may use proprietary web based platforms. Sankar notes, “Professors that use Piazza on-campus typically use it when moving to online learning.”

“Professors were never able to get a pulse of where students were stuck before,” declares Sankar. “What was not explained well? Where they have struggled with homework?” But with Piazza, Sankar notes that professors have seen a 6-10 times improvement in student engagement. This has allowed for a richer learning experience and a pool of engaged young STEM professionals soon to be looking for a career.

However, this increased engagement can come at a price. “I’m still trying to master the best way to organize all of the questions in the course, because I have so many homework and practice exam problems for students to need help with,” mentioned Gottfried. “However, the staff at Piazza have all been helpful on this problem. Occasionally, students can ask questions that are irrelevant like ‘how hard a test was’ so it does require some managing to ensure it is being used properly.”

The Inspiration of Anonymous Interactions

Follow up questions use a more traditional forum format but with resolved/unresolved buttons.

As an entrepreneur, Sankar wanted to “help shy students be able to communicate and collaborate with classmates, TA’s, and professors in a safe environment. I also wanted to ensure they get help and learn class material better.”

This passion comes from her own experience going from an all-girls high school to a mostly male engineering college. “I didn’t know how to socialize and as a result ended up doing a lot of my studying and homework by myself,” says Sankar. It wasn’t until Sankar met Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg that she realized this was systemic in STEM Education. “One of the features in Piazza that the shy students, particularly women, really appreciate is the ability to ask and answer anonymously,” states Sankar.

Now the internet doesn’t always bring out the best in people when interacting anonymously. In such an environment you might think professionalism and plagiarism might be an issue. To combat this professors are able to edit students’ anonymity settings so that speakers are always visible to Professors. Additionally, Professors can make public posts into private posts so they are only viewable by the professor and writer. This tool can also be used in reverse when a student is unsure if a comment crossed any lines.

“The advantage to letting students participate anonymously outweighs the disadvantage of what one student may say,” expresses Sankar. “We are not trying to enable cheating. Students cannot privately message other students without professors being copied on these messages by default.”

Additionally, the anonymous function does pose a risk with respect to participation marks. “Overall, the feedback was great. But we found one feature that posed a red flag for us,” said Viktoriya Oliynyk, Academic Technology Consultant at the University of Colorado – Boulder. “Tracking student participation is very limited in Piazza. You can only see how many total posts each student made in all the course discussions. So if you’d like to have Piazza participation as a part of a course grade in a large course, it might be challenging and time consuming to grade student participation.” 

Piazza Careers: The Digital Job Fair

Palantir’s page on Piazza Careers has been seen by over 10,000 students from over 100 schools.

To help students on that eventual job hunt, Piazza Careers was launched earlier this year. The service remains free for students. It does serve as Piazza’s monetization system, though, which is funded by corporate users.

The service serves to democratize the recruiting process allowing equal visibility of student and company. “Giving all the companies access to the same talent allows small start-ups the same opportunities as larger companies, which can rely on brand recognition … Companies are able to tap into the talent at a place where it is already engaged. About 25% of users log in nightly and stay an average 2-3 hours,” claims Sankar. This is impressive in comparison to Linkedin, which has traditionally struggled to keep users on the site for very long.

Companies can then access this pool of talent using search tools, discussions, event announcements and landing pages. “Employees or managers can even log onto their old Piazza accounts and contact students themselves, from say their alma mater, and find the talent they need. You no longer have to rely solely on recruiters to represent you and your team, but you can collaborate with them instead,” said Sankar.

Students can instantly flip between Piazza Careers and Piazza. They can visit a company page and view their products, videos, documentation, culture, mantra and even contact their listed employees. Meanwhile, companies can search for a student in the database and see their profiles and see what Piazza courses were taken/TA’d. Companies can also plan events, download resumes and contact students directly.

The Future of Piazza

It is only natural that the future of Piazza is to help those students as they step into the real world. Sankar hints that Piazza might soon be available for the working professional too. Imagine an environment where Engineering and other STEM practitioners can pose questions and collaborate on answers and research. In the meantime, students can still access old Piazza discussions, assuming the professor didn’t delete them.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.