By Michael Staton
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98
Clemson researchers are helping teachers discover what will attract a diverse group of students to the world of computer science.
In Brian Richard’s mind, a computer scientist isn’t a coffee-fueled young professional basking in the glow of a laptop screen, logging hours creating lines of code. A computer scientist is a kid with so-so math grades who’s excited to participate in a learning activity that requires her to build a LEGO® basketball robot that can drain 3-point shots.
Teachers like Richard have realized that expanding computer science education to a broader swath of students — not just academic acumen, but also race, socioeconomic status and gender — results in a richer, more creative computer science profession.
During his time as coordinator of career and technology education for the School District of Pickens County, where Clemson is located, Richard has seen that infusing computer science with excitement and engaging content is crucial to attracting a diverse group of students who may otherwise brush the subject off as boring or unappealing. These types of learning activities are the hook for all kids to get into the subject, but especially the disadvantaged ones or those who are underrepresented in the field.
The kids who typically don’t care for computer science are often the best problem solvers, according to Richard. The team of kids constructing that LEGO robot might hate math, but they learn to love it when math nets their robot more three pointers and gets them a better grade in a subject they always assumed wasn’t for them.
“When teachers find a way to get kids to use that brain horsepower in a learning setting, that’s how teachers get their foot in the door and get them interested in the subject,” Richard says. “Students forget about their grades in math. They forget about whether or not their gender or ethnicity is supposed to excel in or enjoy computer science. They forget about their disadvantages — real or imagined.”
Richard, like so many other educators in South Carolina, sees a growing need for computer science concepts to be delivered effectively in classrooms. It’s why he was tapped by Clemson researchers to assist them in developing teaching methods for computer science teachers across South Carolina that better serve the state’s diverse population.
Clemson faculty researchers are using a grant from the National Science Foundation to broaden participation in computer science by improving teaching methods and discovering what does and doesn’t work in computer science classrooms for different student audiences.
Faculty from the College of Education and the School of Computing in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences are working with schools in the Upstate region of South Carolina to gauge the effectiveness of their approaches to instruction. According to Megan Che, associate professor of mathematics education in Clemson’s College of Education, researchers want to equip teachers to engage students in ways that are both rigorous and appeal to a diverse audience.
“As educators, we’re selling students and our discipline short if we’re educating a population of computer science students that isn’t reflective of our state,” Che says. “Computer science can be a tool for any student to express problems around them as well as possible solutions to those problems.”