Clemson attempts to crack code of culturally responsive computer science teaching
CLEMSON — Clemson faculty researchers are using a near $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help computer science teachers across South Carolina develop teaching methods that better serve the state’s diverse population. The research aims 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 will work with upstate South Carolina schools to gauge the effectiveness of their approaches to instruction. Researchers want to engage students in ways that are both rigorous and reflective of the state’s diversity, according to Megan Che, associate professor of mathematics education.
“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 said. “Computer science can be a tool for any student to express problems around them as well as possible solutions to those problems.”
Che and the research team are working with high school teachers from Pickens County and Anderson District 5. They also are reaching out to other districts across the state with the help of the South Carolina Coalition for Mathematics and Science.
Prepare computer science teachers to engage with students in culturally responsive and rigorous computer science teaching is the goal. Through surveys and classroom video analysis, researchers will collect data regarding teacher attitudes toward instruction and how it should be improved.
There is a gap in preparation for many teachers tasked with delivering computer science instruction, said Eileen Kraemer, director of Clemson’s School of Computing. Many of these teachers come into the classroom with backgrounds in career and technical education but without specific preparation in computer science or computer science pedagogy. One of the main research goals is to help teachers discover what might translate to computer science from disparate disciplines.
“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.”
This project employs a culturally responsive approach to teaching and learning as a way for students to connect their daily life experiences with computer science content. This means that students can prescribe their own contexts to projects based on their life experiences.
Rather than expecting teachers to embed computer science concepts within contexts that may or may not appeal to students, a culturally responsive approach allows students to be active in constructing relationships between their interests, their lives and computer science. Whether the contexts are gaming environments, virtual reality, human-centered computing or social discourse, students’ involvement in the application of computer science to their lives is key.
“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 said. “But, students also can code data to measure a social issue, such as the success or failure of trying to improve an underserved neighborhood.”
The educators and administrators working on the project see the potential impact the research can have in their work. Many of them have attracted students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in computer science. All want to see even more students involved.
Anna Baldwin, director of e-learning and integration for Anderson School District 5, has been tapped by the researchers to assist them in the project. Whether the contexts are gaming environments, virtual reality, human-centered computing or social discourse, Baldwin preaches the importance of reinforcing logic and problem-solving skills through computer science in order to prepare 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 said. “There are so many opportunities for students to put their creativity to use, and there’s more potential across all areas of the economy than many people realize.”
Murali Sitaraman, professor in the School of Computing, said the researchers aim to help teachers understand and communicate to their students the similarities and differences between reasoning in coding and mathematics. By making computer science both rigorous and accessible to all student audiences, Sitaraman sees the research benefitting industries in need of a workforce better versed in concepts covered in computer science.
Underrepresentation in schools extends into the software workplace, and a primary project goal is to make the project scalable to rural and under resourced areas of the state and country. The researchers hope their findings will create long-term, positive economic impacts in South Carolina and beyond.
“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 said. “We are excited to add to the existing collective knowledge on how to teach these concepts effectively and make them more relevant for students.”