Slow pace of higher-ed reform costs STEM majors: CS needs context

November 7, 2011 at 8:18 am 5 comments

The argument being made here in this NYTimes piece suggests that the sluggish response to calls for higher-education reform has a real cost.  We know how to make STEM classes more successful, in terms of motivation and learning, but higher-education institutions are not willing to change.

What does this mean for Computing Education?  How do we avoid being “too narrow” and having a “sink or swim” mentality? We are encouraged to have CS education that has “passion” and includes “design projects for Freshmen.”  Sounds to me that contextualized computing education, which includes efforts like Media Computation and robotics, is the kind of thing they’re encouraging.

No one doubts that students need a strong theoretical foundation. But what frustrates education experts is how long it has taken for most schools to make changes.

The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.

In 2005, the National Academy of Engineering concluded that “scattered interventions” had not resulted in widespread change. “Treating the freshman year as a ‘sink or swim’ experience and accepting attrition as inevitable,” it said, “is both unfair to students and wasteful of resources and faculty time.”

via Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) –

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  November 7, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Hi Mark

    I read the Times article the other day — it was definitely all over the map — but I wouldn’t have pulled out your blog topic as the main issue or message.

    The article’s title suggests a possible real problem and issue — science and math are difficult for most human brains (they are inventions that were not obvious, and are not nearly as built into us as propensities and abilities to e.g. learn language).

    But the article failed to give any delineation between “intrinsic difficulties” (which are there) and “gratuitous difficulties” (introduced by poor pedagogy and process).

    We are back to “thresholds for fluency” and then we need to find out what helps students get over those thresholds. There is an excellent chance that some of the new approaches also have grade inflation lurking inside them.

    Trying to understand and improve this with the hard physical science fields might be easier than the more design oriented fields (like computing).



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 7, 2011 at 8:52 am

      I do agree that the article was all over the map. I had two requests to blog on this piece, and I read others’ commentary on the piece to get a sense of what I thought the message might be. Janet Murray was the one who pointed out that the article was arguing for contextualized approaches, because of the characteristics of good first year curriculum described. I noted that the parts I quoted were similar to Rich DeMillo’s themes. It’s a case of the William Gibson quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

      I do see your point about thresholds for fluency, and I worry about that. In the push to get more graduated, does it become meaningless if the quality degrades in the process? I do see that the issues of context and motivation are key, though. Our only hope to get human brains to make the effort to engage with the difficult science and math is to understand engagement and drive in order to motivate that effort.


      • 3. Alan Kay  |  November 7, 2011 at 9:20 am

        In the late 50’s (aka “The Pleistocene”) when I entered college, the two courses that were used as “rites of passage” for Freshmen were Calculus and Chemistry.

        I was quite sure I didn’t really understand Calculus, but got through it OK and eventually got a pure math degree. Along the way I found — in Advanced Calculus — that the first course was bogus mathematically, even false. And that my sense of not-understanding was highly related to feeling the lack of mathematical foundation.

        This completely pissed me off to this day.

        However, I wanted to learn and do math so I kept on slogging to get more understanding.

        Chemistry was not bogus, but quite outdated. Most of us who did well knew this (the school had a mass spectroscope after all — that was never used in the qualitative analysis part of the course, etc.)

        When questioned about this, the professors explained that what we were learning was “process” and “lab technique” and “history”. This didn’t sit well, but they were right that this is what we learned.

        On the one hand, the students who got through these two hurdles were quite successful in subsequent courses and years. On the other, did they eliminate some potentially good students as well? Possibly, maybe probably.

        If “what was high school is now done in college” I think you are extremely right. We are dealing with students who have not yet learned many process skills — and we don’t want to lose them.

        But at some point, hurdles start becoming more like the real deal — the world that STEM addresses is not set up in our favor, and we also have to learn how to deal with inconvenient situations and get through them.

        Is this now for grad school? Sounds too late …



  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I had quite a different take on the NY Times article. I think that the author started from an urban myth. Here is my response:

  • […] Street Journal is touching on some of the same themes as the recent NYTimes article.  I’m particularly excited by this one because my name appeared and I got two pictures in […]


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