Do the Chemistry Profs care about teaching more than the Computer Science Profs?

April 28, 2011 at 9:54 am 20 comments

A couple of weeks ago, Barb and I were awarded Georgia Tech’s Service Award for our work with Georgia Computes!. At the same awards ceremony, across the table, was David Collard of Chemistry who was getting the Professional education award.  He’s been part of an effort (described below) called cCWCS which teaches chemistry faculty how to teach better — and the program has taught over a thousand faculty!

A thousand faculty?!?  I’ve blogged about how hard it is to get CS faculty to come to our workshops, either Media Computation or Georgia Computes.  I’ve talked to other folks who offer workshops to CS faculty, and they say that they have to invite high school teachers, too, or they won’t have enough people to run the workshop.  Why do so many Chemistry professors show up, when we struggle to get CS professors to show up at teaching workshops?

Barb had an interesting insight: Maybe it’s because Chemistry is taught to everyone.  When you teach something to everyone, you have to teach it better, or at least differently than what you’d just teach to your majors who are more motivated to learn it.  If you don’t change your practice, you end up flunking all the students, and that becomes a political problem on campus.  CS faculty, for the most part, teach to our own.  Maybe as we teach CS to more (as Eric Roberts’ post suggests), we too will have to increase our focus on teaching.

What cCWCS does

cCWCS provides support for STEM education dissemination efforts efforts. This takes the form of sponsorship of workshops and symposia, assistance with advertising and webpage development, and formation fo partnerships and networks. Please see our What cCWCS can do for YOU! webpage for more details.

Origins of cCWCS

The Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Communities of Scholars (cCWCS) program is the successor to the Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences (CWCS).   CWCS was supported for 2000-2010 by a series of grants from NSF Division of Undergraduate Education Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program. Over a ten-year period, CWCS offered over 100 hands-on, intentive and immersive five-day workshops for over 1800 participants. These workshops were designed for individuals engaged in undergraduate teaching. They incorporated lots of hands-on experiential learning and provided extensive sets of high quality tested curriculum materials.

Looking ahead

As cCWCS, funded by the NSF TUES program, the schedule of workshops will continue but a much broader set of activities will further engage members of the professoriate networking opportunities. These include both week-long workshops, shorter workshops and symposia at conferences, support of regional initiatives, and dissemination and implementation grants. The development of new web-based communities provides further opportunities to engage the professoriate in professional development activities.

via About cCWCS | Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops & Communities of Scholars.

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20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  April 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Hi Mark

    This is really worth looking into for many reasons. If you could make the case that Chemistry teachers do care more about teaching their field well than Computing folks, that would be a great place to start many reforms off our “not yet a real field”.

    It would be even more compelling if there were also such successful movements in the other physical sciences. Maybe David Collard could tell us?



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2011 at 10:35 am

      I’m wondering the same and am scheduling a lunch with him.

  • 3. Bijan Parsia  |  April 28, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Hey Mark,

    I was wondering if you had a list of “essential reading for working CS instructors” that give the basic results, different approaches and issues, etc. I’d personally find it interesting to read and helpful to point to.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      No, I don’t have such a list, and that’s a problem. To become a certified teacher in most US states, you have to take a “methods” course — a math teacher takes a course on mathematics education, a reading teacher takes a course on what we know about how students learn to read and how to improve that process, etc. What goes into a CS methods course? What constitutes computer science pedagogical content knowledge? There are only a few places where they offer such a thing (Purdue is one), and there is no standard, no textbook, no well-defined/well-accepted body of knowledge. It’s on the community’s to-do list.

      • 5. Bijan Parsia  |  April 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm

        Ok, that sucks. But then, you must have a personal list of papers/books that you like/recommend to your students. Any pointers?

  • 6. Bijan Parsia  |  April 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Also, just so I understand, are you comparing apples? My impression is that your workshop is intra-GA and over a shorter period of time…is that right?

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      I’ve taught workshops all over the place, from 1 day to 5 days. I taught a workshop in LA two years ago where I had all of four people show up, and one of those was a high school teacher and another one was a CS graduate student. It is hard to fill a workshop for CS faculty with 20-30 attendees. You get good attendance the first few times you offer a workshop — the people interested in CS pedagogy are interested in something new. But after you get the initial adopters, it’s hard to draw more in. Ongoing professional development for CS faculty doesn’t really happen.

  • 8. Mike Panitz  |  April 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    This is definitely an interesting post, and I’d love to read any follow-ups on this as your investigation develops!

    Along the lines of comparing apples to apples, I’d love to know what the percentage of chem and CS profs have participated in workshops/teaching-oriented professional development. I’m kinda curious to know if there are more chem professors out there, and if that helps them get higher (absolute) attendance numbers at workshops and such….

    Something else to look at might be the Physics Education Group out at the University of Washington. I was kinda surprised to hear that such a group existed, and as a CS teacher, jealous that there didn’t appear to be an equivalent CS Ed group (that I know of) nearby. Anyways, it may be that the enthusiasm for teaching is also present in physics, as well.

  • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 28, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    I know that Physics pedagogy has a long history, going back at least to Robert Karplus in 1959 (see the Wikipedia article about him).

  • 10. Briana Morrison  |  April 29, 2011 at 8:25 am

    I had the same reaction as Barb when I was reading the first part of the post…since we mostly teach “to our own” and the fact that chemistry is pretty much a staple course in high school (meaning that most students have been exposed to the content before), I think it adds additional requirements for the undergrad faculty to do a better job in teaching the material. Going beyond just the introductory concepts to the pieces that they want the students to walk away with. Most of the undergrad students that take a chemistry class aren’t chemistry majors and thus may not be particularly motivated in learning the material, certainly not learning it well.

    I can only hope that undergrad CS faculty will soon have this problem also: teaching to students that have already been exposed to the concepts, but allowing us to delve into the “meat” of problem solving and what computers can really do for us, rather than just teaching syntax. Perhaps then we’ll find more faculty that are motivated to improve their teaching by looking to new and proven educational methods.

    I could also argue the rate of change of the discipline. While there are new ideas being found in chemistry, how often must they completely change their approach to the introductory course (as we do with new paradigms, languages, etc.). My colleagues often joke that they should have gone into math…calculus hasn’t changed for hundreds of years…

  • 11. Peter Boothe  |  April 29, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    On average: yes.

    There is very little culture of teaching in CS, and even less of a culture of celebrating and rewarding excellence in teaching. There are people who are trying to get one, including you (thank you!) and all of SIGCSE and the CSTA and others, but it’s not there yet. Until everyone has to learn computer science, we as a discipline can get away with “preaching only to the converted”, which is so much easier than the alternative. You can teach much more poorly when the people you are teaching have an affirmative desire to be there. There are mathematicians, physicists, and chemists who are famous throughout their entire disciplines for their superb exposition and teaching. Who are the computer scientists who fit that mold? Do we celebrate them in the community at large, or is it only in the teaching community, or do we largely leave them be?

    Media computation, Teach Scheme Reach Java, Racket-lang, Alice, IPRE, etc, etc, etc. All of these are noble, but still most CS intro courses are “here is Java, here is a variable, here is an if statement, …” all taught with little context. These courses will remain the way they are until we are forced to make a change, because it is much easier to not change a course. I think that the only thing that could make a change is if the audience changed. That seemed to do the trick at GA Tech – you have said that the motivation for media computation came from making everyone take CS, and then watching a too-large proportion hate the class and/or fail it.

  • 12. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 29, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    “There are mathematicians, physicists, and chemists who are famous throughout their entire disciplines for their superb exposition and teaching. Who are the computer scientists who fit that mold?”

    Don Knuth

    • 13. Alan Kay  |  April 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm

      I agree. Don has always been a superb teacher.

      As are and have been

      Alan Perlis
      Tom Stockham
      Bob Barton
      Marvin Minsky
      Seymour Papert

      among many others (albeit a very small percentage of the whole).



      • 14. Peter Boothe  |  April 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        Of these, I had only heard Seymour Papert and Don Knuth described as an excellent teachers (not that the other ones aren’t just that it was never mentioned to me). To me, it implies that while we do *have* excellent teachers (the list above, and yourself, and many others), we don’t generally celebrate their teaching. That list consists of people who are superb researchers who are also superb teachers.

        Are there any people in CS who are *primarily* known for good teaching? An Eric Mazur (physics) or a Paul Halmos (mathematics)? People whose primary contribution was explanation and teaching? Or are the only people who are famous for teaching also famous for doing amazing research?

        • 15. Alan Kay  |  April 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm

          Hi Peter

          Your question is really good and a bit of a stumper. The criteria for the “Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award” (which Mark and Barb just received) are not aimed very strongly at teaching itself*. This is also true for the SIGCSE version of this award.

          To me it brings home the more general difficulty of identifying outstanding classroom teachers, many of whom will not invent much that is new in the way of pedagogy or tools, but who are just terrific and inspiring teachers.

          MIT has a teaching award (Tom Stockham won it twice while he was there), and I’m guessing many other institutions do also. Maybe there is a grass roots process that could find these special people who mainly help others.
          *Presented annually to an outstanding educator who is: appointed to a recognized educational baccalaureate institution; recognized for advancing new teaching methodologies, or effecting new curriculum development or expansion in Computer Science and Engineering; or making a significant contribution to the educational mission of the ACM.

  • 16. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 1, 2011 at 6:24 am

    One problem with identifying “outstanding classroom teachers” is figuring out exactly what that means. The student-voted awards in the UCSC School of Engineering routinely go to two instructors (one who teaches CS, one who teaches computer engineering and electrical engineering). Both are excellent instructors for the courses they usually teach. The CE/EE instructor has taught a variety of different courses and has done well at all of them. The CS instructor does very well at the entry-level courses, but when he taught Advanced Programming, he used the same heavily-scaffolded style, and the students did not learn any of the stuff they were supposed to in the course.

    There is a meme currently floating around in the secondary-school teaching blogs called “pseudo-teaching”. It was introduced to the community at
    by John Burk and Frank Nochese
    has pointers to several of the posts on the discussion.

    “The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudoteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place.”

    I’m afraid that attempts to pick out good instructors are often prone to picking out pseudoteachers.

    • 17. BKM  |  May 1, 2011 at 10:17 am

      These are wonderful links, especially since they are guaranteed to make both conservatives educators, who only seem to value “direct instruction” aka lectures, and progressive educators who never met a shiny tech toy that they didn’t love. In particular, though, these links, and Feynman’s quote, seem to be arguing against the current idea that if only we have a “great teacher” lecturing away, we could have large class sizes and save lots of money.

  • […] Alan’s comment in a previous blog post spoke to the issue of different kinds of needs in education.  I agree completely. The ACM Karlstrom Award that Barb and I are receiving in June is about “outstanding contributions to education,” which may not have anything to do with teaching.  The citation on our award is about Media Computation. There are other kinds of contributions besides producing curriculum.  Sally Fincher received her SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution award for her research and for establishing a cohort of computing education researchers which are revitalizing the field today.  But neither creating curricula nor doing research are about the act of teaching, about having an eye for identifying student problems and misconceptions, and about the art and skill of intervening to facilitate learning (from expository lecture, to designing good problems).  Alan’s right, too, that we don’t know how to measure excellence in teaching, though we certainly need that in computing, and all of STEM.  I suspect that we know more about teaching reading and writing than we do calculating and analyzing. […]

  • 19. Charles Severance  |  May 10, 2011 at 6:40 am

    I think that the reason is that in Chemistry they accept the fact that students in college are typically forced to take intro Chemistry classes and they have accepted the fact that if they try to entertain the students a bit, they will impart more knowledge than if they spend all their time in dry formulae. So the field as a whole accepts the fact that some attempt at making the course pleasant is worthwhile. In CS, that first class is seen as starting to build the mental toughness that is needed to succeed in a four-year degree – so in CS, the norm is that the class is not supposed to be fun or enjoyable – but instead the class is about tail recursion to compute factorials, abstraction, counting parenthesis and other uninteresting things.

    CS needs to start thinking about how they might teach that first computing course to *non-CS-majors* and how they might make such a class interesting and engaging and worthwhile to those students rather than it being a ‘boot camp’ to see who is tough enough to make it in a CS BS.

    I am not against tough and challenging classes in CS – all fields have these and to master a field, you need to be challenged. Just not in the non-majors class.

    All I am saying is that CS needs to start a movement to build courses that appeal broadly and then start a movement where we talk about how to best teach those computing courses. It is not about secretly recruiting them for CS – it is about serving the life-long education needs of non-CS majors.

    Interestingly, 20 years ago, nearly all universities *required* some ind of computing class of all students and handed that class to CS departments to teach. Over time, CS chose to treat that required intro class as either (a) a recruiting tool for CS majors or (b) a ‘how to use a spreadsheet’ class.

    The problem is that all the other departments were not too excited about forcing their students to take an (a) and high schools started teaching (b) – so there is no need for a broadly-required CS course so it no longer part of the core required courses at most universities.

    Chemistry on the other hand treasures its ‘natural science is required’ position in the liberal arts curriculum and works hard to deserve to be in the broader general undergraduate curriculum. It also must often compete amongst the rest of the ‘natural science’ alternatives. And so they work hard to make sure their teachers are good across the country because they know if they mess up teaching the intro chem course, they will be dropped from the curriculum.

    You can make chemistry fun and learn at the same time. You can make computing fun and learn at the same time. Describing data structures using many levels of nested parenthesis is not fun even if you set it on fire to get the students interested and tail recursion is not fun even if you shoot it across a room with a pneumatic gun.

    Making cool web pages with Ajax and Javascript and retrieving RSS feeds and reformatting them with CSS *is* fun. And it is computing. But it is not so much preparation for a CS major.

    CS is a long way from chemistry because we lost that cherished required course across all undergraduate programs. It is not likely we will regain that requirement with the current CS offerings. So perhaps the right approach is to build a good course and see if we can make it interesting and useful enough to non-majors that they *choose* to take the course. That would be a start.

  • […] Mark’s Post (Excerpted below) A couple of weeks ago, Barb and I were awarded Georgia Tech’s Service Award for […]


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