What Computing Education Research does that Engineering Ed and Physics Ed Research doesn’t

October 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm 9 comments

In my most recent recent Blog@CACM post on last month’s ACM Ed Council meeting, I mentioned that I gave a talk about the differences between computing education research and engineering education research (EER) and physics education research (PER). Let me spell these out a bit here.

The context was a panel on how to grow computing education research (CER). We were asked to consider the issue of getting more respect for computing education research (an issue I’ve written on before). I decided to explore the characteristics of CER that are important and that are not present in EER or PER. Engineering Education Research (EER) and Physics Education Research (PER) are better established and more well-respected in the United States.  But I’ve come to realize that CER has characteristics that are different from what’s in EER and PER.

Engineering Education Research

I came to a new understanding of EER because of a cross-campus STEM Education Research seminar that we’re holding at Georgia Tech this semester. It’s given me the opportunity to spend a couple hours each week with people who publish in Journal of Engineering Education (see here), review for them, and edit for them. JEE is generally considered to top EER journal.

If you’re not familiar, engineering education research is a big deal in the United States. There are well-funded engineering education research centers. There are three academic departments of EER. It’s well-established.

In one of the early sessions, we talked about the McCracken Study (Mike McCracken has been coming to the sessions, which has been great), where an experimental assignment was used in five classes in four countries. Are there similar studies in EER? Our EER colleagues looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders. For the most part, EER studies occur in individual classes at individual institutions. Laboratory studies are rare. International collaborations are really rare.

I started digging into JEE. The last issue of JEE only had papers by American authors from American institutions. I’m digging further back. My colleagues are right — international authors and collaborations are unusual in JEE.

In contrast, I don’t think that the ACM Transactions on Computing Education has ever had an only-American issue. Our ICER conference is not even American-dominated. The ICER 2014 best paper award went to a paper by Leo Porter (American) who worked with Raymond Lister (Australian) using data collected from Daniel Zingaro’s classroom (at U. Toronto in Canada) to address a theory by Anthony Robins (New Zealand).  We use classroom studies, laboratories studies, and frequently use multi-institutional, multi-national (MIMN) collaborative studies (and study how to conduct them well).

Physics Education Research

At the January workshop on CER that Steve Cooper organized (paper to appear in CACM next month — it’s where Eric Roberts gave a keynote that I wrote about here), Carl Wieman was the opening keynote speaker. He talked about the hot issues in physics education research.

After his talk, he was asked about how physics education researchers were dealing with the gender skew in physics and about improving access in K-12 to quality educational opportunities. If you look at Brian Danielak’s visualization of AP CS test data, you’ll see that CS is the most gender-skewed, but Physics follows closely after.  (Click on the picture to get a bigger version, and look at the lower left-hand corner.)



Carl said that gender diversity just wasn’t a priority in PER. I dug into the PER groups around the US. From what I could find, he’s right. Eric Mazur’s group has one paper on this issue, from 2006 (see here). I couldn’t find any at U. Washington or at Boulder. There probably is work on gender diversity in physics education research, but it certainly doesn’t stand out like the broadening participation in computing effort in the United States (see papers listing from Google Scholar).  The January workshop really brought home for me that a key characteristic of CER, particularly in comparison with PER, is an emphasis on broadening participation, on social justice, on improving the diversity of the field, and guaranteeing access to quality educational opportunities for all.

I don’t have a deep bottom-line here. It was only a few minute talk. My exploration of EER and PER gave me a new appreciation that CER has something special. It’s not as big or established as EER or PER, but we’re collaborative, international, working on hard and important problems, and using a wide variety of methods, from in-classroom to laboratory studies. That’s pretty cool.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  October 13, 2014 at 10:31 am

    I wonder if the age of the discipline has an impact on these matters. From my quick search, JEE traces its origins back to the early 1900s, and Physics Education to the 1960s. TOCE only dates back to 2001, so international communication via the Internet has been readily accessible the entire time.

    As for the broadening participation emphasis, I wonder if this is a result of CS not being a clear-cut traditional science. That is, we place a lot of emphasis on artifact creation and building things that isn’t quite as present in natural sciences.

    • 2. bwfrank  |  October 14, 2014 at 7:12 am

      Physics education research/reform efforts date back pretty far– the bibliography of the book below (we read in graduate school) suggest a large effort was made around the turn of the century.


      But I agree the contemporary instantiation of PER is 40-50 years old.

      • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 14, 2014 at 6:29 pm

        More like 55 years old. I quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Karplus#Second_career_in_science_education
        “Beginning in the late 50s, many other scientists also devoted themselves to science education and the schools, but Karplus was from the start a leader at the elementary level. Initially there was substantial reluctance at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund science curriculum projects at the elementary level, but this was overcome in 1959, when Karplus and three colleagues received the first of many NSF grants for the improvement of science content at the elementary level. This work evolved into a monumental 15-year effort called the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS). Under the direction of Karplus and Herbert D. Thier, SCIS became a comprehensive, fully tested, hands-on, laboratory-based program in both physical and biological science for grades K-6.”

        • 4. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  October 17, 2014 at 10:00 pm

          For what it’s worth, I was specifically referring to the journal called Physics Education for illustration, not PER as a whole.

  • 5. Jean Griffin  |  October 13, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    A book chapter on gender and physical sciences:

    Bug, A. (2000). Gender and Physical Science. In J. Bart (Ed.), Women Succeeding in the Sciences: Theories and Practices Across Disciplines. Purdue University Press.

  • 6. Eric Brewe  |  October 14, 2014 at 10:30 am

    The author has failed to look beyond two groups to characterize a field. The Physical Review PER journal has an upcoming focused collection on gender in physics and the Florida International University group has published a number of articles looking at broadening participation.

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  October 14, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      Three groups: Boulder, Harvard, and U-W. And the characterization came from an expert, Carl Wieman. I just followed up with those three groups to see if it seemed like a reasonable characterization. I completely believe that there is work on addressing gender diversity in physics. It’s just not a mainstream focus of PER like it is in CER.

      I’m looking at the papers at FIU here: http://perg.fiu.edu/research/published-papers/ — which should I look at for work in gender diversity?

  • […] Cooper organized a series of workshops (see blog posts here and here) exploring how we might grow computing education research within computing departments.  How do […]

  • […] points from Cynthia Lee’s list on how to create a more inclusive environment in CS.  CS is far less diverse than any other STEM discipline.  Being a great CS teacher means that you’re aware of that and take steps to improve […]


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