Heading to International Computing Education Research 2011 in Rhode Island: How CS students choose Threads

August 5, 2011 at 7:08 am 3 comments

I’m heading out Sunday for the 2011 International Computing Education Research (ICER) Workshop, hosted by Dr. Kate Sanders at Rhode Island College in Providence.  The schedule is exciting — we have a bunch of speakers from communities who have been doing CS Ed research, but have not been at ICER previously.  (“Workshop” is ACM’s name for a small conference.)  I’m chairing the discussion papers session.  I’m looking forward to Eric Mazur’s keynote (who has a new educational technology that he’s promoting), and his advice from the Physics Education Research community to the much-younger Computing Education Research community.

The second talk of the conference is from my PhD student, Mike Hewner (same student who previously studied what game developers look for in graduates).  Mike’s dissertation research is asking, “How do computer science undergraduates define ‘computer science,’ and how does their definition influence their educational decisions?” He’s using grounded theory, which is a demanding social science method.  He’s done about a dozen interviews so-far, and has not yet reached “saturation” (where new interviews don’t contribute to the developing theory), so the current theory is still considered “tentative.”  This paper is one piece of that work.

In most CS degree programs, there are some options for students: Choices between electives, between specialization paths, between Threads.  Mike wanted to know how students made those choices.  Several findings surprised me.  First, students don’t “begin with the end in mind.”  Students he interviewed had little idea what job they wanted, and if they did, they didn’t really know what the job entailed.  Second, students don’t think that the choice of specialization is all that important — they figure that they’re at a good school, they trust the faculty, so whatever choice they make will turn out fine.  Finally, an engaging, fun class can dramatically influence students’ perception of a field.  A “fun” theory class can convince students that they like theory.  Their opinion of the subject is easily swayed by the qualities of the class and the teacher. “Why are you in robotics (even though it doesn’t have much to do with what you say you want to do for your job)?” “Well, I really liked the robots we used in CS101…”

Hope to see some of you there!

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