Archive for April 26, 2021

The Bigger Part of Computing Education is outside of Engineering Education

My Blog@CACM post this month is about the differences I’ve seen between computing education and engineering education (see link here). Engineering education has a goal of producing professional engineers. I describe in the post how ASEE is about the profession of engineering, and developing an engineering identity is a critical goal of engineering education. Computing education is about producing software engineers, but that’s only part of what computing education is about. SIGCSE is about learning and teaching of computing, and as computing educators, we teach students with diverse identities. They overlap, but the part of computing education that is outside the intersection with engineering education is much bigger than the part inside.

Computing education for me is about helping people to understand computing (see the Call for Papers for the International Computing Education Research conference) — not just CS education at the undergraduate level. Preparing future software engineers is certainly part of computing education, but sometimes computing educators only see engineering education goals. Computing education has a bigger scope and range than engineering education. Here are three areas where we need to focus on the bigger part outside engineering.

1. K-12 is for everyone. Computing education in elementary and secondary school should be about more than producing software professionals. There are certainly CS teachers who disagree with me. An example is Scott Portnoff’s critique of CS curricula that does not adequately prepare students for the AP CS A exam and the CS major. I agree that we should offer CS courses at secondary school that give students adequate preparation for post-secondary CS education, if students want to go on to a CS major and become a computing professional. But K-12 has to serve everyone, and the most important goals for K-12 CS education are goals for what everyone should learn about computing. We want students:

I am personally much more interested in K-12 teachers using computing to teach everything else better. Computational science and mathematics are powerful for helping scientists and mathematicians gain insight. We should use computing in the same way to advance student learning in STEM, social studies, and other disciplines — without turning those other classes  into CS classes. This is the difference that Shuchi Grover is talking about with her two kinds of CT: learning about CS vs using computing to learn other things.

2. Courses for non-CS Majors. I’m co-chairing a task force on computing education for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences, & Arts (LSA) (see a blog post on this effort and our website with our NEW preliminary report). I’m learning about the ways that LSA faculty use computing and how they want their students to learn about and use computing. Their purposes are so different from what we teach in classes about computer science or data science. Sure, computational scientists analyze data like data scientists, but they also create models that turn their theories into simulations (which can then generate data). Computational artists use computing to tell engaging stories in new ways. Computational journalists investigate and discover truth with computing. LSA faculty care a great deal about their students critiquing how our computing systems and infrastructure may be unjust and inequitable. (Interesting note: The word “justice” does not appear in the new Computing Curriculum 2020, and the word “equity” appears only once.)

There are computer scientists who tell me that there is only one computer science for all students. Their argument is that better engineering practices help everyone — if those computational scientists, journalists, and artists just programmed like software engineers, the world would be a better place. Their code would be more robust, more secure, and more extensible. That is likely true, but that perspective is misunderstanding the role of code in doing science and making art. You don’t critique the poet for not writing like a journalist or a novelist. These are different activities with different goals.

We should teach non-CS majors with courses that serve their needs, speak to their identities, and support their values. We should not require all artists and scientists to think, act, and program like engineers just to take computing classes.

A CS educator in the Bay area once tried to convince me that the most important purpose for courses for non-CS majors was to identify the potential for being great programmers. He claimed that there are programmers who are two magnitudes better than their peers, and identifying them is the most important thing we can do to support and advance the software companies on which our world economy depends. He argued that we should teach non-CS majors in order to identify and promote future engineers, not for their own purposes. I see his argument, but I do not agree that scientists, journalists, and artists are less important than engineers. As I consider this pandemic, I think about the role that computing has played in medicine, logistics, and media. Of course, we have relied heavily on software engineering, but I don’t believe that it’s more important than all the other roles that computing played.

3. Supporting diverse identities. There is a disconnect between efforts to broaden participation in computing and framing CS classes as engineering education. As I mentioned in my Blog@CACM post, I taught my first EER course this last semester and read a lot of EER papers. A big focus in engineering education is developing an engineering identity, i.e., helping students to see themselves as members of the engineering community of practice and as future professional engineers.

One of my favorite papers that we read this semester was “Feminist Theory in Three Engineering Education Journals: 1995–2008” by Beddoes and Borrego. They define different branches of feminism. “Liberal feminism” is the goal for women to be treated the same as men, to get access to the same jobs at the same pay. “Standpoint feminism” points out that “liberal feminism” is too much about fitting women into the jobs and cultures of men, as opposed to asking how things would be different if created from a feminist standpoint.

The professional identity of software engineering is male and White. That’s true from the demographics of who is in the Tech industry, but it’s also true from a historical perspective on the systemic bias in computing. Computing has become dominated by men, with many studies and books describing how women were forced out (see for example The Computer Boys Take Over and Programmed Inequality). Our tools privilege one part of the world. Every one of our mainstream programming languages is built on English keywords. That’s a barrier for 85% of the people on Earth. (Related point: I recommend Manuel Pérez Quiñones’ TED talk “Why I want My Voice Assistant to Speak Spainglish” in which he suggests that the homogenous background of American software engineers leads to few bilingual user interfaces — surprising when 60% of the human race is.)

There’s the disconnect. We want students in computing with diverse perspectives and identities. But engineering education is about developing an identity as a future professional engineer. Professional software engineering is male and White. How do we prepare diverse students to be future software engineers when that professional identity conflicts with their identities? We should teach computing, even for CS majors, in ways that go beyond the engineering education goal of developing a professional engineering identity.

We might argue that we want everyone to have the opportunity to participate in CS, but that’s taking the “liberal” perspective. Broadening participation should not be about fitting everyone into the same identity. It’s not enough to say that everyone has the chance to learn the programming languages that are based in English, that are grounded in Western epistemologies, and where the contributions of women have been marginalized. We need to find ways to accept and support the unique identities of diverse people. 

One way to support a “standpoint” perspective on computing education might be to support activity over identity in our CS curriculum. At Georgia Tech, the undergraduate computer science degree is based on Threads (see website). There are threads for Intelligence, People, Media, Devices, and Theory — eight of them in all. A BS in CS at Georgia Tech is any two threads, so there are 28 paths to a degree. This allows students to define their professional identity in terms of what they are going to DO with computing. “I’m studying People and Devices” is something a student might say who wants to create consumer computational devices like Echo or Roomba. The Threads curriculum allows students to make choices about professional identity, in terms of how they want to contribute to society.

Of course, some of our students want to become software engineers at a FAANG company. That’s great, and we should support them and prepare them for those roles. But we should not require those identities. Computing education is about more than producing software engineers who have the traditional engineering identity.

The Bigger Part of Computing Education. I claimed at the start of this post that “computing education that is outside the intersection with engineering education is much bigger than the part inside.” All the studies I have seen say that’s true. While CS undergraduate enrollment has been exploding, the number of end-user programmers is likely a magnitude larger than the number of professional software developers. K-12 is about 50 million students in the United States, and computing education is available to most of them. The number of computing education students who are NOT seeking an engineering identity or profession is much larger than those who are. That’s the more-than-engineering challenge for computing education.


My thanks to Leo Porter, Cynthia Lee, Adrienne Decker, Briana Morrison, Ben Shapiro, Bahare Naimipour, Tamara Nelson-Fromm, and Amber Solomon who gave me comments on earlier drafts of this post.

April 26, 2021 at 7:00 am 5 comments


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