Archive for June 17, 2020

Why do students study computing, especially programming

Alan Kay asked me in a comment on my blog post from Monday:

You and your colleagues have probably done a survey over the years, but it would be useful to see one or two examples, and especially one from the present time of “why are you currently studying computing, especially programming?”

It would be illuminating — and very important — to see the reasons, and especially the percentage who say: “to learn and understand and do computing and programming”.

A half-dozen papers sprang to mind. Rather than type them into a teeny tiny response box, I’m going to put them here. This is not a comprehensive survey. It’s the papers that occurred to me at 8:30 am EDT in response to Alan’s query.

The biggest recent study of this question is the Santo, Vogel, and Ching white paper CS for What? Diverse Visions of Computer Science Education in Practice (find it here). This paper is particularly valuable because it starts K-12 — what are the reasons for studying CS in school?

The most recent paper I know on this topic (and there were probably new ones at RESPECT and SIGCSE 2020 that I haven’t found yet) is this one from Koli, It’s like computers speak a different language: Beginning Students’ Conceptions of Computer Science (find it here). I liked this one because I most resonated with the “Creator” perspective, but I design today for those with the “Interpreter” perspective.

Alan particularly asked what we had done in our group. We started asking these questions when we were doing Media Computation (here’s a 2005 paper where we got those answers from Georgia Tech and Gainesville College students — GT students mostly wanted to know how to use a computer better and then get a good grade, while Gainesville students wanted to know what programming was). We got different answers from the follow-on course MediaComp Data Structures course where we started seeing a real split in views (see Lana Yarosh’s paper here). When we were doing “Georgia Computes!”, we did a statewide survey in 2010 to understand influences on students’ persistence in CS (see paper here). This is important to read, to realize that it’s not just about ability and desire. Women and BIPOC students are told that they don’t belong, and they need particular attention and encouragement to get them to go on, even if they believe they could and should. Probably the study from my group most explicitly on this question is Mike Hewner’s Undergraduate conceptions of the field of computer science (see paper here).

Two of my former students, but not with me, developed a validated computing attitudes survey (Tew, Dorn, and Schneider, paper here). Here, they ask experts what CS is, then use the same instrument to ask students what CS is, so that they can compare how “expert-like” the students answers are.

Not from my research group, but a really important paper in this space is Maureen Biggers et al’s Student perceptions of computer science: a retention study comparing graduating seniors with CS leavers (see link here). Most studies look at those who stay in CS. Maureen and her team also interviewed those who left, and how their perception of the field differed.

There are so many others, like the “Draw a Computer Scientist” task to elicit what the field is about (see example paper here and here). I particularly like Philip Guo’s groups paper on “conversational programmers” — people who study programming so that they can talk to programmers, not to ever program or to understand programming (see CHI’16 paper here).

Here’s what I think is the main answer to Alan’s question: Yes, it’s changed. But there are some specific answers that are consistent. Yes, some want to learn programming. Others want to learn programming as part of general computer skills.

I’m going to stop here and push this out before my meetings start for the day. I invite readers to add their favorite papers answering this question below.

June 17, 2020 at 9:03 am 12 comments


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