Posts tagged ‘computing for all’

When computer science has to be a requirement if we want it to be available to everyone

Robert Sedgewick had an essay published at Inside Higher Ed last month on Should Computer Science Be Required? (see link here). He has some excellent reasons for why students should study computer science. Several of them overlap with reasons I’ve suggested (see blog post here). He writes:

Programming is an intellectually satisfying experience, and certainly useful, but computer science is about much more than just programming. The understanding of what we can and cannot do with computation is arguably the most important intellectual achievement of the past century, and it has led directly to the development of the computational infrastructure that surrounds us. The theory and the practice are interrelated in fascinating ways. Whether one thinks that the purpose of a college education is to prepare students for the workplace or to develop foundational knowledge with lifetime benefits (or both), computer science, in the 21st century, is fundamental.

So, we both agree that we want all students in higher education to take a course in computer science — but he doesn’t want that course to be a requirement. He explains:

When starting out at Princeton, I thought about lobbying for a computer science requirement and asked one of my senior colleagues in the physics department how we might encourage students to take a course. His response was this: “If you do a good course, they will come.” This wisdom applies in spades today. A well-designed computer science course can attract the vast majority of students at any college or university nowadays — in fact, there’s no need for a requirement.

Colleges and universities offer the opportunity for any student to take as many courses as they desire in math, history, English, psychology and almost any other discipline, taught by faculty members in that discipline. Students should have the same opportunity with computer science.

I have heard this argument before. Colleagues at Stanford have pointed out that most of Stanford undergraduates take their courses, without a requirement. Many colleagues have told me that a requirement would stifle motivation and would make students feel that we were forcing computer science down their throats. They would rather “attract” students (Sedgewick’s word above). I recognize that most students at the University of Michigan where I now work have the kind of freedom and opportunity that Sedgewick describes.

But I know many institutions and situations where Sedgewick’s description is simply not true. CS teachers can try attracting students, but they are only going to get them if it’s a required course.

  • In most Engineering programs with which I am familiar, students have relatively few electives. In most of the years that I was at Georgia Tech, Nuclear Engineering students had no elective hours — if they took even a single course out of the planned, lockstep four years, the degree would take them longer (and cost them more). Mechanical Engineering students had exactly one three credit hour course that they could choose over a four year program. These are programs where students are not allowed to take any course that they desire. Those two degree programs are extreme situations (but still exist at many institutions). Even here in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Michigan, students are limited in the number of elective hours that they can take outside of CS and engineering classes. For many technical degrees, if you want students to take a particular subject, you have to convince the faculty who own that degree to include computer science in those requirements. At Georgia Tech, we had to sell a computer science requirement to the rest of campus. I tell that story here.
  • If students are paying by the course, then they take the courses that they need, not the ones that they might desire. I worked with Chattahoochee Technical College when I was in Georgia. They struggled to get students to even finish the requirements for a certificate. Students would take the small number of courses that helped them to gain the job skills that they needed. Completing courses that were merely interesting or recommended to them was simply an unnecessary expense. There are millions of students in US community colleges. If you really think that everyone should learn computer science, you have to think about reaching those millions of students, too.
  • Finally, there are the students who might end up loving computer science but, right now, they don’t desire it. First, they may simply not know what computer science is. In California (as an example), only 39% of high schools offer computer science, and only 3% of all California high school students take it (see link here). Alternatively, they may know what computer science is, but have already decided that it’s not for them. In my group’s research, we use expectancy-value theory often to explain student behavior — if students don’t think that they’ll succeed in computer science, or don’t see people like them belonging in computer science, then they won’t take it. That’s one reason for mandatory computer science in high schools — to give everyone the chance to discover a love in CS. So far, it’s not working in US high schools. I have argued that (see article here) we don’t know how to ramp up to that at the high school level yet. But we certainly could at the higher education level.

I understand Sedgewick’s argument for why he wants to offer the most compelling computer science course he can at Princeton, in order to attract students and motivate them to learn about computing. (I don’t agree with him that curated online videos are better than live lectures, but I think we mean something different by “lectures.”) I also understand why making that course a requirement might undermine his efforts to motivate and engage students. But that’s only a small percentage of students at the Princeton-like institutions in the US, and elsewhere. I’m sure he would agree that everyone deserves the opportunity to learn about computer science. His reasons why CS is important for Princeton students are valid for everyone. We are going to need different strategies to reach everyone. For some students, a requirement is the only way that we are going to make it available to them.

December 2, 2019 at 7:00 am 16 comments

Our work at SIGCSE 2019: Ebooks, jobs, privilege, what is research, and what is literacy

There was a time before each SIGCSE Symposium or ICER Conference that I would write a blog post about all the cool things being presented from Georgia Tech (see for example SIGCSE 2018 and SIGCSE 2017 posts).  But now, the list of things at SIGCSE 2019 from Georgia Tech and University of Michigan (my new home) is enormous.

I’m going to take a different strategy — the selfish and easier strategy.  Let me just tell you about the things that I know about because I work with the authors. All the proceedings are available here.

  • Wednesday is the RESPECT conference (see program here). At the 9:30 session, Katie Cunningham will be one of the presenters of a paper “Job Placement Experience and Perceptions of Alumni from a Three-year Computer Science Program” with Miguel Lara and Bude Su about the job placement experience of students who graduate from the CSin3 program that won a best paper award at last year’s SIGCSE Symposium.
  • On Thursday afternoon, I’m going to be on a panel with Lauren Margulieux, Leo Porter, Greg Nelson, and our organizer and moderator, Colleen Lewis.  The topic of the panel is “Negotiating Varied Research Goals in Computing Education Research.”  Greg and Amy Ko published a paper at this last year’s ICER, which won one of the best paper awards, that I and others strongly disagreed with.  Amy’s blog post captures the discussion and arguments well. This panel continues that discussion.
  • Friday morning: I will be giving a keynote “Computing Education as a Foundation for 21st Century Literacy.”  I’ve practiced it every seminar and event I could find for the last couple months, so I’m ready.
  • At Friday’s 10 am poster session, ECEP will be presenting a poster (Jeff Xavier as lead) on “Fostering State-level Change In CS Education: The Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance.”
  • At a Friday morning 10:45 am special session, Miranda Parker will join Helen Hu, Jason Black, and Colleen Lewis to explore the role of privilege in CS education — an issue near and dear to Miranda’s heart (see, for example, this post).
  • At Friday afternoon’s 3 pm poster session, Katie Cunningham will have a poster with Miguel Lara and Bude Su echoing their RESPECT paper.
  • Friday afternoon at 3:45, Barb Ericson will be on a panel with Alison Derbenwick Miller, Lecia Barker, and Owen Astrachan on broadening participation in computing.  “You don’t have to be a white male that was learning how to program since he was five:” Computer Use and Interest From Childhood to a Computing Degree. I know that Barb is working hard on analyzing all the AP CS 2018 data, so this may be the unveiling of her annual analysis (see 2017 and 2016 posts here).
  • Saturday afternoon, Barb Ericson (with Brad Miller and Jackie Cohen of U-M) will present a workshop on how to use the Runestone ebook platform that we use in our work (see, for example, this post).

I highly encourage everyone to check out the SIGCSE 2019 Best Paper award-winning presentations (see list here).  I’m particularly excited that Andreas Stefik’s (with Richard Ladner, William Allee, and Sean Mealin) project on developing CS Principles materials for blind and visually-impaired students is being recognized. We need to take more seriously making computing accessible to a broader range of students.

 

February 25, 2019 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Do we want STEM education or do we want STEM learning?

I’ve mentioned a couple times that I’m working on using programming in teaching social sciences.  The goal is to teach STEM concepts (e.g., modeling, simulation, using graphical representations like charts, thinking about bias/skew and missing variables in big data, etc.), but in non-STEM subjects.  I argue that the “non-STEM subjects” part is key if you want diversity, if you want to draw in people who aren’t naturally going to show up in STEM classes.
I bounced this off an NSF program officer, and I got a pretty strong: “No.”  I’ll quote part of the response here.
While this is an intriguing idea, no, it would not be fundable in the XXX program as it does not involve the engagement of STEM faculty or their courses, assessments, or materials, or STEM majors.  (All of these are not necessary, but STEM is necessary, not just STEM learning.)
XXX is not just about improving or supporting STEM learning.  It is about improving STEM education.
There’s a distinction being drawn here between “STEM learning” and “STEM education.”  It’s an interesting and important distinction. I’m not at all saying that the officer is wrong.  This program officer is saying (paraphrasing), “It’s not just about learning STEM concepts. It’s about supporting the infrastructure and mechanisms through which we teach STEM.” (By the way, since this exchange, I’ve found other NSF officers in other programs that are more focused on STEM learning not just STEM education.)
That’s a fair concern. We do need STEM classes, curricula, assessments, and faculty. But if we really care about interdisciplinarity and broadening participation, we need to care about more than that.  We need to fund efforts to integrate STEM learning and use STEM thinking (e.g., Bacon’s Novum Organum) across the curriculum, to influence how we think about everything. We also need the infrastructure to support the institution of STEM education. The challenge is doing both.
There is an obvious connection to computing education.  We need more computer science teachers, curricula, tools, and classes. But we also need more students learning about computing, which might happen more inexpensively in mathematics, science, and social science classes. How do we prioritize?

December 21, 2018 at 3:39 pm 2 comments

What is programming-as-literacy, what does it look like, and what should we worry about? Alan Kay in Scientific American

Last month, I wrote a blog post about programming as a kind of literacy. I got some pushback.  Really? Literacy?  That programming in C stuff?  Well, no, programming in C is not what I mean by a form of literacy.  I recommended looking at some of what Alan Kay had written in Scientific American.

I decided to do that for myself.

Alan’s first article for Scientific American was in 1977, “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer,”  about the idea of a personal computer and the explorations they were doing at Xerox PARC with Smalltalk. I liked this one a lot because it emphasizes simulations “the central property of computing.”

The second was in 1984, “Computer Software.” Here’s where he defines literacy with the computer. It’s way more than just programming.

Alan_Kay_-_Computer_Software_SciAm_Sept_84

The third was in 1991, “Computers, Networks and Education.” This is the one where Alan really questioned whether things with computing were going in the right direction. For example, he worried about how people thought about “literacy” on the computer.

sci_amer_article-literacy-as-burden

He returned to the importance of simulation.

sci_amer_article-value-of-computing-is-simulation

And he was worried about people being critical of information that they find on the Internet (note that this is 1991, before Web browsers).

sci_amer_article-networked-computers

But in the end, Alan was hopeful, that we might develop a skeptical attitude with computing.

sci_amer_article-simulation

December 17, 2018 at 7:00 am 3 comments

Computational thinking abstracts too far from the computer: We should teach CS with inquiry

Judy Robertson has a blog post that I really enjoyed: What Children Want to Know About Computers. She argues that computational thinking has abstracted too far away from what students really want to know about, the machine.

Computational thinking has been a hugely successful idea and is now taught at school in many countries across the world. Although I welcome the positioning of computer science as a respectable, influential intellectual discipline, in my view computational thinking has abstracted us too far away from the heart of computation – the machine. The world would be a tedious place if we had to do all our computational thinking ourselves; that’s why we invented computers in the first place. Yet, the new school curricula across the world have lost focus on hardware and how code executes on it.

Her post includes pictures drawn by children about what they think is going on inside of the computer.  They’re interested in these things!  We should teach them about it.  One of the strongest findings in modern science education is that inquiry works. Students learn science well if it’s based in the things that they want to know. Judy argues that kids want to know about the computer and how code executes on the computer. We shouldn’t be abstracting away from that. We should be teaching what the kids most want to learn.

To be clear, I am not criticizing the children, who were curious, interested and made perfectly reasonable inferences based on the facts they picked up in their everyday lives. But I think that computer science educators can do better here. Our discipline is built upon the remarkable fact that we can write instructions in a representation which makes sense to humans and then automatically translate them into an equivalent representation which can be followed by a machine dumbly switching electrical pulses on and off. Children are not going to be able to figure that out for themselves by dissecting old computers or by making the Scratch cat dance. We need to get better at explicitly explaining this in interesting ways.

December 10, 2018 at 7:00 am 3 comments

MicroBlocks Joins Conservancy #CSEdWeek

This is great news for fans of GP and John Maloney’s many cool projects. MicroBlocks is a form of GP. This means that GP can be funded through contributions to the Conservancy.

We’re proud to announce that we’re bringing MicroBlocks into the Conservancy as our newest member project. MicroBlocks provides a quick way for new programmers to jump right in using “blocks” to make toys or tools. People have been proclaiming that IoT is the future for almost a decade, so we’re very pleased to be able to support a human-friendly project that makes it really easy to get started building embedded stuff. Curious? Check out a few of the neat things people have already built with MicroBlocks.

MicroBlocks is the next in a long line of open projects for beginners or “casual programmers” lead by John Maloney, one of the creators of Squeak (also a Conservancy project!) and a longtime Scratch contributor. MicroBlocks is a new programming language that runs right inside microcontroller boards such as the micro:bit, the NodeMCU and many Arduino boards. The versatility and interactivity of MicroBlocks helps users build their own custom tools for everything from wearables to model rockets or custom measuring devices and funky synthesizers.

Source: MicroBlocks Joins Conservancy

December 5, 2018 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The systemic factors that limit Black participation in the Tech sector

I learned a lot from Kamau Bobb’s recent Atlantic article, “The Black Struggle for Technology Jobs.”  In it, he details the systemic factors that limit Black participation in the Tech sector.  He uses the possibility of Amazon’s HQ2 going to Atlanta as a framing.

After Atlanta made the shortlist of cities vying for Amazon’s second global headquarters, HQ2, it submitted a multibillion-dollar investment to try to seal the deal. (Other cities’ proposals were even bigger.) At stake is nothing less than the city’s economic future: HQ2 promises more than 50,000 high-tech jobs with an average salary of more than $100,000. With the tech industry looking like the future of all industry, Atlanta landing Amazon’s HQ2 would be a dream come true.

But a dream for whom? Highly educated people, particularly those with technical skills, are the ones who are really eligible for these prized jobs. People without that kind of education risk becoming even more marginalized in an increasingly tech-driven economy. In Atlanta, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, history has already largely determined who gets to benefit from the potential of Amazon.

In 2016, there was only one census tract in Atlanta where the population was more than 65 percent black, and where more than half the population age 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2000, there were 10. Here, many black and brown students, and poor students of all backgrounds, receive a substandard education that does not prepare them for entry to the select colleges and universities tech companies draw their workforces from. Consequently, with or without Amazon’s investment, the city’s black population likely won’t land stem jobs unless they can gain access to the rigorous educational paths required to compete for them. In Atlanta and the many other American cities still scarred by decades of racist education policies, the future of work is still largely defined by a past from which their residents of color can’t seem to break free.

I’m biased in favor of this article because one of the students he interviews in this piece is my daughter, Katie. I learned from Katie’s comments, too.  I knew that the public high school where we sent all three of our children was unusually diverse, yet it was a family conversation how the gifted/accelerated classes were almost all white and Asian.  Because of what Barb and I do, we kept an eye on the AP CS class at that high school, and were surprised every year at how few Blacks ever entered the class, despite the significant percentage of Black students in the school. I’m glad that, years later, Katie still thinks about those issues and why so few Black students made it into her AP classes.

 

December 3, 2018 at 8:00 am 2 comments

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