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­Using Other STEM Disciplines to Predict Future Computing Education

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Mark Guzdial

I recently attended a symposium hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), EnFUSE: Envisioning the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education: Research and Practice Symposium, which served as the Principal Investigators' meeting for several U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) programs around undergraduate education from the Education and Human Resources Directorate. (See here for the whole 2016 program book.) It was a large event -- several hundred attendees, 360 posters, 120 paper presentations. Computer science was the home discipline of a relatively small slice of the attendees, with less than 20 attendees.

I argued in a previous blog post that computing education may be 100 years behind other STEM disciplines, in terms of adoption in schools, production of teachers, and establishing learning objectives and curricula. I wrote that article in 2012 when the unprecedented growth in CS Education in several countries was just starting. It's worthwhile thinking what mature computing education will look like, when it's pervasive the way science and mathematics are in secondary and post-secondary education.

Computing education will likely mature to become more like science and mathematics education, where some computer science is taken by many majors to serve a need for computational thinking, as opposed to engineering education which is mostly taken by future professional engineers. EnFUSE gave me the opportunity to directly compare where computing education is to where math and science education are. When can we expect to change as computing education matures?

The opening plenary speaker was Jo Handelsman, the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy. She talked about President Obama's goal to produce 1 million more STEM college graduates by 2022, and to train 10,000 more STEM teachers for school. That's a lot of people.

She argued that much of the increase could come from increased retention. Many more students start out in STEM than finish actually finish, and the percentages of those who continue are higher for white males than other demographic groups (see 2014 Dept of Ed report and related article in US News). We get improved retention by changing how we teach.

For example, active learning methods lead to fewer failing students (see Wired article). Active learning disproportionately helps the students who are most at risk for leaving STEM. If STEM teachers taught with more active learning, we would likely have greater retention. As Annie Murphy Paul wrote in the NYTimes, "Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families."

Handelsman explored the careful balance that the White House has to maintain when supporting change in how we teach. The White House can't mandate active learning. Presidents, chancellors, and provosts can help make change, but lasting change happens by incentives and training -- rewarding institutional change, disseminating best practices, and providing professional development to teachers.

The pushback against Handelsman's talk focused on the million STEM majors. One questioner asked about the humanities. Unless undergraduate enrollment grows dramatically, STEM will be taking students from humanities majors. CS is familiar with this issue, and is one of the reasons for the CS+X initiative at Stanford (see article here) to use the explosion of student interest in CS to encourage more exploration of humanities. Another questioner asked about the poor quality of STEM programs in K-12 and the challenge of retaining under-prepared STEM students. In CS, we're more likely to still have students who have never had a K-12 CS class for a decade or more (as described in this report from states).

Another plenary took an informal poll of the audience. One of the questions posed was, "What percentage of your faculty (defining 'your' faculty in any way that makes sense for you) know active learning methods?" We were asked to stand for "less than 10%", "10% to 30%", "30% to 70%", or "greater than 70%." I was chagrined to be the only one standing for "< 10%." Sarah Heckman of NCSU was one of the few CS people standing for "> 70%." She told me they have a four-day mandatory new faculty orientation for all of Engineering and CS, where two full days are spent on active learning methods. (There will be a workshop offered this summer for new CS faculty going to U.S. research-intensive universities on effective and efficient teaching, including active learning methods -- contact Leo Porter at for more information.)

In general, there was clearly more elaborated and explicit focus on teaching in the other STEM disciplines. There was more development of faculty in evidence-based teaching methods, even beyond initial orientation. There were a variety of methods discussed on assessing teaching quality, from observation, to guided teacher reflection. Themes around faculty development and assessment of teaching are still unusual in computing education venues.

At a workshop on faculty professional development that I attended, attendees talked in small groups about the design process for faculty professional development. I was the only computer scientist around my table. One attendee talked about the importance of starting from student needs -- we want to make sure that what we teach faculty actually addresses what students need. I responded, "If you want faculty to attend development sessions, you have to explain how it meets their needs. Faculty are more selfish than that -- they will not spend effort on things that meets student needs but doesn't meet their needs." We have to show faculty that new teaching methods can lead to greater efficiency (e.g., can save them time) and can even be fun. The attendees around my table resoundingly said that I was far too cynical. They reported most of their faculty are motivated to be better teachers and to meet student needs.

I checked with some of my CS colleagues, and most agreed with me. Their perception was that most CS faculty were not going to attend professional development just to meet student needs. Of course, the best faculty professional development meets faculty needs and student needs.

An interesting question was why my perception of faculty attitudes was so different from the perception of the attendees from the other STEM disciplines. I could just be wrong. Or it could be that CS is different. Are faculty in the other disciplines more attuned to teaching and student needs because of their faculty orientation and professional development? Because they assess teaching quality? Or perhaps because of a disciplinary or institutional culture that more highly values teaching? Maybe CS will have a similar change in attitudes towards teaching as computing education matures.


Cassidy Alan

"STEM" *should* pilfer by enticement some of the humanity majors. Some of them (a couple of my own) go into "humanities" type majors and would have done themselves and the rest of us better with science and math.

Too much government-compliant thinking goes into "soft" majors.

Central planning never works for what one wants. People of any gender or color or culture are not cattle to be herded. They just get mad. See?

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