Archive for November 19, 2009

How would you know if you’re broadening participation?

Yesterday’s meeting of BPC Alliance investigators might fall under the category of “hard fun.”  Certainly “hard learning.”  The BPC Alliances were originally funded for three years, and then could apply for a two year extension (9 alliances have passed this hurdle), and next can possibly go for a five year extension.  The bar for the five year extension is going to be very high.  Jan Cuny wanted us to realize just how high it’s going to be, so she organized “mock review panels” where we critiqued each others’ 2-year extension proposals.  Each PI presented the proposal for 10 minutes, then there was a critique where the PI could not rebut or respond to questions from other PI’s as well as other experts, then the PI was sent out of the room for the hard discussion that you might not want to do to the PI’s face.  It was fascinating and I learned a lot, but it wasn’t a lot of fun.

One of the key questions for the day was, “How would you know if you’re broadening participation in computing?”  What would you look for?  What should be in the evaluation?  The evaluators presented in the morning and highlighted the five indicators that they think are key:

  • Participation: Who’s in the pipeline?
  • Motivation: Are the people in the pipeline motivated to move on?
  • Advancement: Do we see people moving from stage-to-stage?  For example, do we get kids into high school CS, then taking undergrad CS, then going on to careers or grad school in computing?
  • Organizational capacity: Can we handle more people?  Do we have the teachers and schools to handle growth?
  • Alliances: Are the stages working together to make advancement happen?

These five are not the ones that the evaluators are declaring the “Common Core Indicators,” the ones that everyone in BPC will be required to gather.  Instead, they are highlighting just three: People, Organizational Capacity, and Alliances.  They decided that Motivation and Advancement are part of the other indicators.

Teachers are an interesting case here.  If you think about training teachers, they’re part of the pipeline — they have to get started, and then improve, and then reach the point where they can teach harder classes like AP CS.  However, teachers are also part of organizational capacity.  They can be measured under either indicator.

Probably the most interesting nugget that I learned yesterday was that we don’t have a lack of African-American men in computing! We’ve thought for years that African-American men were not going into computer science, because the Taulbee report showed so very few of them.  Then the WGBH image study came out showing that African-American male students really liked computing.  Well, then, where are they?  Turns out that they’re mostly going to the community colleges, and to the DeVry and Phoenix kinds of places.  They show up in the IPEDS study.  The Taulbee report only surveys PhD-granting institutions, where the African-American men aren’t.  So, the problem is a little more complex and nuanced than what we realized — there are a lot of African-American men in computing, but they’re not going into the educational paths that lead them into the leadership positions.  We have lots, but they’re not getting the high-paying jobs.  It’s still a problem, just a more complex problem.

November 19, 2009 at 10:48 am 4 comments

Are we a bunch of (particularly) grumpy old men?

Yesterday I was in DC for a meeting of NSF Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance investigators.  It was a really useful and challenging meeting, where we had to go around the room and critique each others’ last proposals (!).  The goal was to improve how we’re thinking about our efforts and how we’re expressing them.  I’ll have more to say about the meeting in a moment, but first, I wanted to highlight a meme that was going around the room yesterday.

We computer science faculty have a bad rep!  Over and over yesterday, in one-on-one meetings and in group discussions, the notion that computer science faculty are a particularly grumpy and curmudgeonly group kept coming up.  Some examples:

  • “Our <different kind of computing> faculty are willing to try all kinds of things to attract students and do outreach, but our Computer Science faculty insist that they will only do Scheme!  They’re just a bunch of curmudgeons!”
  • A specialist in working with disabled students said that her colleagues ask her why she decided to work with computing students.  “Why did I decide to work with the most difficult and grumpy faculty on all of campus?”
  • Another PI describing her efforts to inculcate change in her computer science department, “But we can’t even get the faculty to learn about new things! They’re happy with UNIX and want everyone to just do that!”

So my experience is that there is a significant percentage of more senior faculty of all disciplines are fairly set in their ways and are rather “grumpy” about change.  Maybe I fall in that category now, so I’m blinded to the claim I heard yesterday — that computer science senior faculty are particularly resistant to change and grumpy about it.

Before Barb Owens or others call me on it — of course, there are senior CS women faculty, too.  But it is the case that CS faculty of decades past have been male, so the characterization of “grumpy old men” is not inaccurate.  And it might be that the male faculty are even grumpier than the female faculty.

I can imagine how the claim that CS faculty are particularly grumpy could be true.  Computer science is a young discipline.  Senior faculty today spent their whole careers defining and defending their turf — “This is computer science, and that isn’t.”  At the same time, computer science has had dramatic change: From computer time being more expensive than human time, to the reverse; from memory being dear, to memory being plentiful; from sequential processing being the assumption, to today’s world where parallel processors are all that we can see going forward.  How often does a discipline change so many of its base assumptions in the lifetime of a faculty member?  Change is hard for anyone, and particularly so when you’ve spent your career making arguments that are weakened or changed by time.

Now, I don’t know that it’s true that CS faculty are particularly “grumpy.” Maybe it is.  The real point of the BPC discussions was that our resistance to change is counter-productive.  We need students who don’t look like us.  There are too few students who look and act like us to provide the computing labor and insights that our society needs.  We have to break out of our assumptions and the methods that have served us well up until now.  That’s hard, but we have to get past the “grumpiness.”

November 19, 2009 at 9:56 am 4 comments


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