GHC Session #1: Best Practices for Introductory Computer Science

22Oct09

I had originally planned on attending the “Communicating Powerfully Across Gender” session, but since it was cancelled, I chose to attend this one instead. I hadn’t originally looked at it since it was listed in the Academic track, but I am glad I went since it was very interesting to hear about some methods of teaching first-year courses that other universities have tried.

There were 4 presenters, each from different schools: Duke University, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Union College, and The College of New Jersey.

First, they talked about some of the issues that they had had previously with their introductory CS sequences. The major one that I noted was the 30-40% attrition rate in the CS major. Some of the issues they talked about helped not just women, but also men.

What they found was important in designing the first year courses:

  1. Choosing the right tools
  2. Peers, teams, expertise, and ownership
  3. Relevant problems
  4. Not dumbing it down

At Duke, they tried a peer-led team learning approach where the first year students would solve problems in groups of size 4-8, led by a junior/senior student, sort of like the tutorials run at the University of Waterloo, but on a much smaller scale. They found that having the social group was very encouraging for the students, especially for the women. Also, they taught the non-majors course in Alice, which drew 50% women.

At RIT, they had an introductory sequence focusing on game software development, sponsored by Microsoft. This helped the students since they were motivated by real issues, instead of just conjured up problems. They also had a higher retention rate in this sequence than in the normal one. The social aspect of game development brought out early collaboration and showed the importance of code analysis and peer critiquing to the first year students, something that most other courses don’t introduce at all.

Union College is a liberal arts college, so the first year courses serve as a significant recruiting tool for the various majors. They chose to offer a themed approach to their introductory CS course, with studio-style teaching combining lectures, discussions and hands-on activities such as pair programming. These themed courses include: computational science (applications in the sciences and social sciences), game development, artificial intelligence, robotics, media computation, and engineering applications. They found that students were more interested in working at the problems since they had chosen the interest.

The College of New Jersey had similar ideas to the other three schools. One of their comments was to stay away from using the term gatekeeper to refer to their introductory CS courses since it suggests that the course is a hurdle or that if they can get through the course, then they can get through CS, whereas the term door opener conveys a much more positive, but otherwise similar meaning.

I presented some of my notes on this session at the University of Waterloo Women in CS lunch after the Grace Hopper conference. One attendee seemed interested in the ideas I presented, but since our program sees such a significantly higher number of students per year (around 900 in total) than the schools who presented at the session, the information wasn’t nearly as valuable as it could have been.

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