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.”

bridging the teaching gap

If computer science is to welcome a more diverse audience of students, change must start with educators. Many teachers tasked with delivering computer science instruction come into the classroom with backgrounds in career and technical education but without specific preparation in computer science. Clemson researchers know that the first step in broadening the range of students interested in computer science is to address the preparation gap for teachers.

Sherri Smith has been involved with the Pickens County school district steering committee for the Clemson research project. When she came into R.C. Edwards Middle School with a background in business education, she saw the need to begin exposing children to computer science concepts.

However, Smith’s lack of knowledge in the subject meant she had to seek online training and summer classes in order to get up to speed to understand these concepts before relaying them to her students. She’s bridged the gap on her own, so she’s happy to be a part of a project that will make that process easier for future educators.

“Many of us teach computer science now because we love it and see the value in it, but more future teachers need to feel competent,” Smith says. “We need to expose students to these concepts as early as possible to pique their interest so that they will jump at the chance to explore computer science in high school or even earlier.”

Smith had to essentially learn a new language in the classroom in order to teach computer science, so one of the main research goals is to help teachers discover what translates to the subject from disparate disciplines. According to Eileen Kraemer, professor in Clemson’s School of Computing, increasing the teachers’ comfort levels is the first hurdle to clear.

“We want to design development strategies that get these teachers comfortable teaching computer science concepts,” Kraemer said. “Once their confidence increases, the teachers can then concentrate on teaching computer science in a way that resonates with underrepresented students.”

The research team is working with high school teachers from project partners Pickens County and the adjacent Anderson District 5 as well as districts across the state with the help of the South Carolina Coalition for Mathematics and Science. Through surveys and classroom video analysis, researchers will collect data regarding teacher attitudes toward instruction and how it should be improved.

Clemson researchers are already well versed in teacher development for computer science. Kraemer’s research examines human aspects of software development in the contexts of computer science education and software engineering. She currently serves as the vice chairperson of CSEdSC, an organization of South Carolina educators and businesses dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of South Carolina students enrolled in computer science courses in public schools.

Murali Sitaraman, another School of Computing faculty member involved in the project, studied undergraduate computer science education for nearly 25 years with support from NSF grants. Sitaraman’s research has focused on helping diverse learners reason about their code correctly through engaging pedagogical methods and tools.

Che has previously aided educators and faculty members in writing computer science standards for education, and through that process has gained perspective on the state’s long-term goals with the subject. Her educational research focuses on equity, access and critical perspectives, a crucial component of the current project’s emphasis on attracting diverse learners to computer science.

Anna Baldwin, director of e-learning and integration for Anderson School District 5, doesn’t think the transition to computer science has to be difficult for teachers. Baldwin is another district representative who is closely involved in the research, and she sees the teacher development aspect as a means to give already-excellent teachers the tools they need in the classroom.

“Effective teachers already know how to reach kids,” Baldwin says. “What they need is the content knowledge for computer science. Once they have what they need to make that transition, they can leverage student interest and motivation to drive learning.”

“From robotics to 3D printing, there are many different ways students can tweak computer science to meet their interests. In this way, students can be the owners of their own learning.”

responsiveness over relevancy

Putting students in the driver’s seat is where the concept of culturally responsive teaching comes in. This student-centered approach identifies and nurtures each student’s unique cultural strengths.

Instead of an educator forcing “cultural relevance” on a group lecture that would inevitably fall short with some or most of the students in a classroom, a culturally responsive approach allows each individual student to connect their daily life experiences with computer science content. Students prescribe their own contexts to projects based on their life experiences.

“Many students respond to teaching that demonstrates computer science changing people’s lives, such as wearable technology that helps someone with a disability complete a task,” Che says, “but students can also code data to measure a social issue, such as the success or failure of trying to improve an underserved neighborhood.”

The educators and administrators from partner districts involved in the project see the potential impact the research can have in their work. Many of them have already managed to attract students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in computer science, from student-athletes to those who are content spending most of their time outdoors. All want to see even more students involved.

Baldwin constantly preaches the importance of reinforcing logic and problem-solving skills through computer science to the teachers and students in Anderson District 5. She sees all contexts — whether they are gaming environments, virtual reality, human centered computing or social discourse — as valid in preparing students for the modern workplace.

“From robotics to 3D printing, there are many different ways students can tweak computer science to meet their interests,” Baldwin says. “In this way, students can be the owners of their own learning.”

Students are constantly tethered to technology, most notably through smartphones, and teachers at participating schools have had success in leveraging that technology into engaging content in the classroom. Teachers have noted how effective it is to bring
“real-world” computer scientists to students via Google Hangouts to discuss principles that relate to subjects in class.

Baldwin says her district is collaborating with others to have career clusters and courses that can provide certification to students that give them an edge in the job market. She believes that once teachers are equipped with the methods to engage students with computer science, districts will notice a sea change in how a larger, more diverse audience of students talks about careers after graduation.

“It’s not just coding; it could be entering the health care field and programming a robotic hand to pick up objects for someone who’s lost one,” Baldwin says. “There are so many opportunities for students to become problem solvers and put their creativity to use, and there’s more potential across all areas of the economy than many people realize.”

impacting the economic future of south carolina

A legion of problem solvers emerging from schools across the state is the end game for Ernest Andrade, the founder and director of the Charleston Digital Corridor. The organization is a community-sourced initiative to attract, nurture and promote the region’s tech economy by focusing on creating business, education and social environments that are attractive to tech companies.

Andrade says the culturally responsive approach is a breath of fresh air in schools, as he has seen other programs targeting single groups come and go without much success. Andrade says underrepresentation in schools extends into the software workplace for a variety of groups, so an intervention that targets everyone is needed.

“All of the initiatives I’ve seen developed to attract just females or just African-Americans to computer science are misguided,” Andrade says. “A culturally responsive approach that attracts all students by allowing them to assign meaning to the subject is a huge step in the right direction.”

Andrade says the need for schools to graduate more competent future employees is more apparent now than ever, and industries are realizing this in their workforce. He says manufacturing companies should understand that employees with a high school education or GED need to know both what button to push and why, and he feels South Carolina is behind the times in this regard.

Andrade says out-of-school programs such as the Charleston Digital Corridor’s own CODEcamp Kids have been successful in using qualified computer science educators to promote an interest in computer science and tech careers. He thinks Clemson’s research approach will bring this type of focused program into high schools and the school system in general, which will make a long-term difference in the state’s work force.

“Anyone in education or industry has their head in the sand if they talk about what a workforce is lacking without concentrating on the people being fed into that workforce,” Andrade says. “Attracting a more diverse population of students to education that prepares them for technical positions is crucial.”

Researchers already see the potential positive impact their work can have on South Carolina and beyond. Sitaraman says that although work will originate in the Upstate, he sees long-term benefits from the research being magnified in rural Lowcountry schools defined by underrepresented populations and poor socioeconomic status.

Sitaraman says the project is also scalable for other areas of the state and country with similar student demographics. After Clemson and district partners write the teaching methods playbook that increases diversity in computer science, Sitaraman and the rest of the research team want educators across the state and nation to take a page from it in order to turn passive observers of computer science into active learners.

“The hope is that we can become a model for any schools or districts in any state that want to make computer science rigorous, engaging and more culturally responsive,” Sitaraman says. “We are excited to add to the existing collective knowledge on how to teach these concepts effectively and make them more relevant for students.”

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Michael Staton is communications and media manager for the College of Education and the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.

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