You know what they say — “new year, new me”… and a bunch of new classes to start off winter quarter! Ever since course registration opened on Dec. 1, the only website I’ve seen used more than Axess has been Carta, a popular course planning service that allows Stanford students to read reviews of classes and create schedules. While instruction might be virtual for the first two weeks of the quarter due to rising COVID-19 cases across the country and the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, the course shopping period waits for no one! As students rapidly add and drop classes and scramble to finalize their schedules before the Preliminary Study List Deadline, I decided to sit down with Meg Reinstra ‘23, Carta’s Co-Product Manager and Back-End Team Lead, to learn more about the website’s behind-the-scenes.
The rundown on Meg? She’s from Menlo Park and is a junior studying computer science. She first got involved with Carta in the fall of her freshman year, saying what drew her to the team was her desire to “work on a project that was meaningful.” While Meg did come to Stanford with previous coding experience, having taken two years of computer science classes in high school, she had never coded outside of school before.
“I think [Carta is] a great way [for freshmen and sophomores] to get experience outside of the classroom,” Reinstra said. “A lot of theory taught in schools is useful for solving contrived problems and building the skills needed in the computer science industry. With Carta, I was able to practice the coding I would need to do in the real world.”
A little bit of history on Carta — it was built in a single summer by a Stanford Ph.D. student, Sorathan “Tum” Chaturapruek ’19, in 2016. It was originally an experimental research-based platform that examined how students made decisions about the courses they planned to take and, in turn, inspired further inquiry into how these factors affected their GPA. Soon, the data was recognized by the Pathways Lab, a sector of the Graduate School of Education that publishes peer-reviewed research on how people make sense of learning experiences. They later partnered with students and adapted the platform into the prominent course-planning website it is now. While Carta team members still collaborate with mentors from the Pathways Lab, the website transitioned over the course of the pandemic into an independent, student-run project called Carta V2. It’s an effort to “rewrite” the platform to optimize the user experience in terms of speed and accessibility to more features, and was actually spearheaded by Meg’s older brother, John Reinstra ’20.
“[In 2016], my brother started building a course-choosing platform similar to Carta. Then Carta launched, and he was all like, ‘Oh, crap, this already exists.’” Since Carta had been constructed in one summer by one person, Meg explained, it had been kind of hard to read and maintain, so John started a team to rewrite the platform, which is the Carta we see now.
According to Meg, Carta is divided into three teams: the front-end team, the back-end team and the design team. The front-end team dictates the layout of the website, or what you see when you open the computer. The back-end team codes the data necessary for the website to run. Lastly, the design team brainstorms the future versions of Carta to come. All the magic happens inside a single room in the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center. A peek into their workspace and you’d see team members running code on their laptops and glancing over each other’s shoulders to offer advice on approaching specific problems, ultimately engaging in a “collaborative” process.
“We all kind of work together,” Meg said.
Meg shared with me an exciting bombshell: Carta is starting to plan for the next iteration of the site! This has resulted in the typical workday at Carta consisting of “less coding” and “more whiteboarding” and increased discussion about strategy for future updates to the website.
“I think the biggest thing we’re working on right now is just a new, more intuitive layout with different search filters to make the platform more usable,” Meg described. “I think we’re also trying to rebrand slightly as more of a planning kind of website.”
In that case, what’s next for Carta and Meg? One of the reasons why Meg is glad she joined the Carta team during her frosh year was because of the experience she’s gained. At the time, she was “very torn between medicine and computer science, and had no experience in either.” Working with Carta taught her what it was like to work on a software project.
”I remember asking myself, do I like sitting in a room coding for fun? This is not for everyone.” Meg recalled. “And I think my takeaway was ‘yes, I do.’”
Meg is still enrolled in pre-med classes at Stanford. While she isn’t planning on taking the MCAT in the foreseeable future, she is still drawn to medicine and observed a huge need for computer scientists in biotech and bioinformatics. Yet, no matter the specific sector of computer science she eventually pursues, Meg says that she is most interested in “building infrastructure” rather than coding the data “needed to run complicated algorithms.”
Meg also shared Carta’s vision moving forward. While she believes that Carta’s current popularity for getting a glimpse into courses via data and reviews is “great and useful to students,” she says that the website is also trying to incorporate “more four-year planning.” According to Meg, there is no set timeline during which users will be able to observe much change to the site (besides the occasional bug fixes, of course). When these changes do take effect, she hopes that they will provide students with the data they need to design the optimal Stanford career.
Yet regarding what she wants users to take away from Carta, Meg shared that she hopes that students avoid reducing themselves and their own unique needs, goals and desires to data points on a graph. She cautions users against putting too much weight on all of the site’s quantitative data, including the “Intensity” graph (which shows how many hours students typically devote to a course per week) and the “Quality of Instruction” score (as derived from the end-of-term course Canvas evaluations). Furthermore, the site’s qualitative data (the reviews) is voluntarily posted by students, typically after they have completed their courses. Since there is no way to measure student opinions on courses in real time, Meg said, it is easy to “overestimate” the burden of more stressful classes or look back on others with “rose-tinted glasses.”
“I think it’s important to [understand and] appreciate that all the data comes from students reflecting on their own experiences,” Meg said.
Meg also said that students should sometimes take the reviews with a “grain of salt” and remember that they might “like things that other people [do not].” While Meg hopes that Stanford students benefit from what Carta has to share, she ultimately wants students to keep a “holistic” mindset.
Just as a single data point is not representative of a course, Meg said, “there is no such thing as the typical Stanford student.”