Archive for March 24, 2010

Sally Fincher and women in computing education research for Ada Lovelace Day

I took the pledge to write about a woman in computing that I admire for Ada Lovelace Day.  Like last year when I wrote on three local female computer scientists, I had a hard time picking just one.  The rules say that you can write about more than one, but the pledge form assumes only one.  So I’ll write on one but mention three more, on the theme of women in computing education research.

Sally Fincher is the world’s leading computing education researcher.  She leads a computing education group that includes superstars like Ian Utting and Michael Kölling. If we were to list the next top 20 computing education researchers in the world, we would find that Sally has taught (through the Bootstrapping or Scaffolding projects) and/or mentored over a dozen (maybe all 20?) of those.  She’s defined research methods that are used all over the world.  Perhaps even more significantly than all of that is that she has worked to create the infrastructure for computing education research to grow worldwide.

I first met Sally at the ITICSE 2001 conference that she co-hosted at her home institution, University of Kent at Canterbury.  It was at that conference that Mike McCracken organized the first multi-institution, multi-national study in computing education in which I participated.  Mike realized that all computing education research projects were going to get hung up on institutional or cultural differences, unless you increased the number of students, institutions, and countries involved.  Sally was fascinated by this project and hung out often with the working group.  While she didn’t invent MIMN studies, she created several, and wrote the paper that defined how these work and how to design one.

I wrote earlier this month, when Sally won the ACM SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution in CS Education award, about her work with Disciplinary Commons with Josh Tennberg.  Suffice to say here, there are additional Commons growing up all over the place now.

Probably her most impressive achievement is her efforts to grow computing education research in the United States (and Australia and elsewhere, but I mostly know the US work).  Andy Bernat was at NSF, and he wanted to get computing education research started again.  Through Josh Tenenberg, he involved Sally and Marian Petre to literally “bootstrap” computing education research, by running a multi-year workshop to teach fledgling computing education researchers how to do it.  Sally went on to run others of these efforts, to create dozens of new researchers.

But after generating all these researchers, Sally realized that her new folks had a problem.  Where were they going to publish?  Most of the papers they submitted to the SIGCSE conference were rejected, because that really isn’t the place for research papers.  So, Sally set out to create the infrastructure to grow an entire research community.

  • With Marian, she wrote the guidebook Computer Science Education Research to tell others how to do this.
  • With Richard Anderson and me, she created the ACM SIGCSE’s International Computing Education Research (ICER) workshop, which is now in its fifth year.
  • She co-edits the Journal of Computer Science Education Research so that there is both a conference and journal venue for her new researchers.

Sally is an amazing person.  I can’t imagine someone who has done more to launch a research field than she has.  She inspires me a great deal.

I wanted to write about more than one female computing education researcher, despite the pledge restrictions, so let me mention three others briefly.

  • Beth Simon is the most energetic and productive researcher that I’ve ever met in any field, and we’re blessed to have her in computing education research.  She just got started publishing in this field in 2004, and already has over 30 publications. Among my favorites of her projects is the effort to define “commonsense computing” — what do students know about computing before we get started teaching them?
  • Sue Fitzgerald was my co-chair for SIGCSE 2009.  Sue’s at a small, urban school with a significant teaching load, and yet she publishes more journal articles than I do (and I’m at a research university with several doctorate students).  She does an amazing job of maintaining and leveraging collaborations with a team of researchers around the world.  I am impressed with her tenacity and her ability to just keep doing good work.
  • Caroline Simard is the head of research for the Anita Borg Institute.  She does these studies of women in the workplace that stick in my head and influence my research directions.  Her earlier study of female mid-level IT managers has been influencing my thinking about computing education beyond formal school. She’s just completed a new study of female senior-level managers which blows away stereotypes about women in IT.  Yes, female managers in IT have family responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean that they put any fewer hours in their jobs — they steal from other time, like having less social time than men.  Caroline is doing terrific work that tells us about the realities and the needs in areas where few other researchers are looking.

Michael Kölling

March 24, 2010 at 6:44 am 12 comments


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