Computing Applications Broadening participation

That Classroom ‘Magic’

Effective teaching practices for broadening participation in computer science.
  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring Computer Science Program
  3. Research to Examine Effective Teaching Practices
  4. What Are the Implications for CS Educational Reform?
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Figures
young woman in LAUSD
Young women make up approximately half of the Exploring Computer Science student population in LAUSD.

What creates that classroom “magic” when the most discouraged students engage actively, critically, and creatively with the subject at hand? Specifically, what does this look like in a computer science classroom, a subject that has historically attracted only a narrow stratum of students, leaving the majority feeling that they don’t belong? How can this “magic” be described, defined, and measured? And which parts of this “magic” are the most effective for broadening participation in computing?

Analysis of pre- and post-student surveys shows increased interest in and motivation to learn computer science after taking ECS.

While an engaging classroom may feel “magical,” it really is not. Rather, it is the result of purposeful instructional practices and a curriculum intentionally designed for broadening participation in computing. Though computer science educators often scrutinize curricular efforts, more attention needs to be paid to the particular teacher proficiencies that are most impactful for reaching diverse learners. Our research team has been conducting research in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Exploring Computer Science (ECS) classrooms investigating the question: “What characteristics of high school ECS teaching practices are most effective for broadening engagement and participation in computing for students traditionally underrepresented in the field?”

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Exploring Computer Science Program

The Exploring Computer Science (ECS) program consists of a high school introductory computer science course combined with an accompanying teacher professional development program. ECS was developed in response to previous research, detailed in Stuck in the Shallow End, which identified disparities in CS learning opportunities that fall along race and socioeconomic lines.3 In that research we found that schools with high numbers of low-income students of color were offering keyboarding and other basic rudimentary computing skills as “computer science.” Most students were not being prepared for the only available college preparatory computer science course, AP Computer Science (AP CS). To fill this need and to carry out our mission of broadening participation in computing, the ECS curriculum was written by two of our team members, Joanna Goode and Gail Chapman.

ECS consists of six units of approximately six weeks each, covering Introduction to Human Computer Interaction, Problem Solving, Web Design, Introduction to Programming (Scratch), Computing and Data Analysis, and Robotics. The ECS curriculum is structured to facilitate inquiry and equity-based instructional practices so that all students, especially those in schools with high numbers of low-income students of color, are introduced to the problem solving, computational practices, and modes of inquiry associated with doing computer science.

One metric of our success has been the LAUSD ECS student demographics that stand in sharp contrast to most other computer science courses. In 2013–2014, approximately 2,500 LAUSD students were enrolled in ECS, and 75% of ECS students were Latino (72% of district population), 10% were African-American (10% of district population), 9% were Asian (6% of district population), and 5% were White (10% of school population). Girls represented 45% of enrolled ECS students.

These ECS enrollment statistics are dramatically different from the participation rates of girls and students of color in national and state AP CS statistics: out of nearly 5,000 exam-takers in California last year, only 8% were Latino and 1% African-American. Only 22% of exam-takers were girls.4

Yet, even with these promising LAUSD ECS enrollment statistics, we recognize the work is not done. Teachers must work to transform ECS classroom culture and teaching so that all students experience and engage with foundational computing concepts and develop essential computational practices. Thus far, analysis of pre- and post-student surveys show increased interest in and motivation to learn computer science after taking ECS. We have partnered with SRI International to design assessment measures that will capture student knowledge, skills, and active learning.

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Research to Examine Effective Teaching Practices

For the past several years we have conducted intensive mixed-methods research to understand which teaching practices support broadened participation in computing. In 2011–2012, we conducted 219 weekly observations in nine ECS classrooms. Through this ethnographic field research, along with several years of pre- and post-student surveys, teacher surveys, and student/teacher interviews as data sources, we have identified three strands of teaching practice critical for supporting broadening participation in computing.

  • Computer Science Disciplinary Practices
  • Inquiry Practices
  • Equity Practices

It is important to note these strands are interweaving and inseparable, and that no strand can exist alone.

We observed how changing from a direct instruction teaching philosophy to an inquiry- and equity-based teaching philosophy takes time.

Computer Science Disciplinary Practices. While the more traditional computer science curriculum commonly focuses on programming and the computer as a tool, ECS focuses on the underlying problem solving and critical thinking necessary to explore effectively the wide array of topics that comprise the field of computer science. The curriculum is purposefully structured so the first two units put the focus on problem-solving (often without any use of computers) as well as setting classroom norms of inquiry, collaboration, equitable practices, creativity, and cognitively demanding problem-solving. Though each of the six units has a particular computer science content area of focus, all of the units and lesson plans incorporate the following computational practices:

  • Analyzing the effects of developments in computing.
  • Designing and implementing creative solutions and artifacts.
  • Applying abstractions and models.
  • Analyzing students’ own computational work and the work of others.
  • Communicating computational thought processes, procedures, and results to others.
  • Collaborating with peers on computing activities.

These practices parallel those in the guiding framework for the new Advanced Placement CS Principles course. The actual classroom integration of these disciplinary practices then depends on inquiry and equity-based teaching practices.

Inquiry Practices. Our research has found that ECS inquiry teaching is guided and its success depends on skillful teacher designing, facilitating, and assessing learning opportunities for active student learning. The inquiry practices that we identified in ECS classrooms are:

  • Focusing on the problem-solving process instead of only emphasizing the “right” answer, recognizing that there can be multiple solutions to a problem.
  • Posing initial questions and prompts that help facilitate cognitively challenging thinking and exploration opportunities.
  • Engaging students with hands-on activities so students apply and test what they know and what they are discovering.
  • Encouraging exploration, autonomy, risk-taking, and creativity by resisting “giving” students the answers and immediate solutions.
  • Promoting collaboration through peer-to-peer learning, small group work, and in-depth whole class discussions.
  • Connecting computer science concepts to students’ prior knowledge.
  • Employing journal writing, sometimes as a tool for metacognitive reflection.

Equity Practices. Especially in computer science, and other fields that suffer from underrepresentation of females, students of color, and students with disabilities, an array of equitable teaching practices are necessary to make the classroom a welcoming and enriching learning environment for all students. The equity-based practices identified in the ECS classrooms include:

  • Using culturally responsive and student-centered teaching that makes computer science learning relevant to students’ personal experiences and out-of-school knowledge.
  • Incorporating students’ cultures and out-of-school knowledge as assets instead of deficits.
  • Connecting classroom learning to the sociopolitical contexts and issues relevant to students and their communities.
  • Developing caring and respectful relationships with students.
  • Engaging in ongoing reflection about their own and students’ belief systems about who can excel in computer science. It is not uncommon for students and teachers alike to enter a computer science classroom with stereotypical notions about who will enjoy and/or do well in the course.
  • Maintaining high expectations for all students that counter stereotypes about who should excel in computer science.
  • Differentiating learning for diverse learning styles, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
  • Creating opportunities for students to broaden participation in computing outside of the classroom through internships, community college courses, and summer programs.

These findings support research on science learning for traditionally underrepresented students that shows how engagement with the material is facilitated and learning is deepened when the practices of the field are recreated in “locally meaningful ways” and the field is presented in a way that “allows youth to express who they are and want to be in ways that meaningfully blends their social worlds with the world of science.”3

The world desperately needs diverse perspectives to be present at the design tables.

These empirical findings also contribute to the framework of culturally responsive computing education as outlined by Eglash, Gilbert, and Foster recently in Communications.2 The instructional design and pedagogy of these ECS classrooms, which purposefully combined cultural and computational practices, led to increased engagement and interest in computer science for students who historically have not had access to computing knowledge.

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What Are the Implications for CS Educational Reform?

As there is increased recognition of the importance of K–12 computer science education, the issues associated with implementation are no longer a distant concern. In particular, the CS10K community (supporting the mission of building 10,000 U.S. teachers to teach high school computer science) is considering such questions as: When we recruit teachers to teach computer science, what are the qualities we hope to recruit? How important is content and pedagogical knowledge? Likewise, these findings have implications for teacher education and professional development planning. How do we design course pathways for pre-service computer science teachers? What should be the focus of professional development? What knowledge and skill sets are needed for facilitators of professional development? How do we best support a teacher corps strong in the most effective practices for broadening participation in computing?

In addition to the teaching practices identified here, our research has found variation in implementation of these practices within and across classrooms. We observed how changing from a direct instruction teaching philosophy (for example, lectures, individual student learning, right or wrong answers) to an inquiry- and equity-based teaching philosophy takes time. The critical supports for teachers include: a curriculum and accompanying professional development program that have inquiry and equity practices as the foundation; in-classroom coaching and mentoring; and a strong and vibrant teacher professional development learning community. See http://www.exploringcs.org.

The world desperately needs diverse perspectives to be present at the design tables. Our mission of democratizing K–12 CS knowledge requires making this subject accessible for all students, especially those who have been traditionally underrepresented in the field, whether they intend to become a computer scientist or not. As most professions and fields are now being transformed by computer science, students who have this knowledge have a jump start into multiple careers or academic pathways. These opportunities and contributions must not be reserved for only a narrow band of students with “preparatory privilege” that includes family resources, parental knowledge, and learning venues. This is why we advocate for computer science learning for all students.

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UF1 Figure. Young women make up approximately half of the Exploring Computer Science student population in LAUSD.

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    1. Calabrese Barton, A. and Tan, E. We be burnin'! Agency, identity, and science learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 19, 2 (Feb. 2010), 187–229.

    2. Eglash, R., Gilbert, J., and Foster, E. Toward culturally responsive computing education. Commun. ACM 56, 7 (July 2013), 33–36.

    3. Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holme, J., and Nao, K. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

    4. The College Board. California Summary of AP Program Participation and Peformance (2013); http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/ap/data/participation/2013.

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