In our attempts to encourage more students in the US to pursue computer science, we may be focusing too much on skills and not enough on the opportunities and stimulating work environments such skills make possible, according to a new study.
The findings of the study—conducted by Couragion, funded by Oracle Academy, and based on data from 3,612 students in the US—could influence how we structure K-12 computer science education.
For at least two decades, the US public education system has given much attention to developing skills in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. When computer science (CS) classes are offered in K-12 schools, they focus mostly on robotics, coding, and programming languages such as Python, Java, and C++. This focus is key to articulating desired learning outcomes, developing consistent standards for student learning, and measuring student achievement.
However, despite active interventions, most students are still shying away from CS. This is true especially for girls and women, some racial and ethnic minorities including African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, and socio-economically disadvantaged students.
The new study suggests the answer may have a good deal to do with our focus on CS skills instead of CS career paths.
For example, imagine if someone asked your 6th-grade self, “Do you want to study gross anatomy?” You probably wouldn’t know what gross anatomy is, and so decline. If asked, “Do you want to study gross anatomy? You’ll have to study a lot of chemistry, too,” you might decide you don’t enjoy chemistry and so now definitely don’t want to study gross anatomy, no matter what it is.
Now imagine if someone asked you instead, “Do you want to become a doctor, work in a busy hospital, and help people?” You might say, “Yes, I love busy, interactive environments and I dream of helping people.” If asked, “Do you want to become a doctor, work in a busy hospital, and help people? You’ll have to learn gross anatomy and chemistry to do that,” you might very well still say yes, and be more open to studying anatomy and chemistry because that’s the means to an end that is meaningful to you.
Not the Conventional Wisdom
Among the specific findings of the Couragion-Oracle Academy study:
- Exposing female students to robotics does not encourage them to pursue CS pathways and may alienate them and discourage such pursuits.
- Given the low number of available jobs in robotics and forecasts of slowing growth, educators should reconsider using robotics to teach coding and technology in the classroom.
- The software developer jobs for which we prepare students with existing CS education practices focused on programming are least aligned to student preferences. Only a third of students studied received a “Best Fit” for the career of software developer, very few students shared positive sentiments about this career, and male students were two times as likely as female students to have received a “Best Fit.”
- Among the students studied, regardless of race or gender, 64% received a “Best Fit” for the career of UX technologist, leading researchers to conclude that exposing students to this field, with design as an entry point, can broaden CS participation.
Those findings won’t necessarily be news to people who study computing education. In 2015, Professor Mark Guzdial, then at Georgia Tech, pointed out that academic studies of educational practices make a compelling case that beginning CS education with programming is not likely to have positive outcomes. But this kind of academic work seldom finds its way into popular media or the general conversations of K-12 teachers and administrators, and so we miss building our CS education foundations on best practices.
A Different Path
Now that the Couragion-Oracle Academy study reiterates the earlier research, the path to fixing the CS education problem seems painfully obvious.
Students, like the rest of us, don’t think of their futures in terms of the skills they will need to learn. Students, like the rest of us, become interested in careers because of the people they will work with, the kinds of environments they will work in, and the kinds of opportunities they will have. In other words, like the rest of us, students think about their futures in terms of what they want to do, not in terms of what they need to know.
If we focus students on CS skills, we will excite some of them but fail to ignite the imaginations of many more. Instead of saying, “Do you want to spend an hour this week coding?” and giving students a self-study guide in the library, we should start by asking them, “Do you want to make it easier for people to use their mobile devices to find recycling bins in the school? Let’s get with a team and figure out how we might do that.” The contextualization of skills within a framework of a career’s daily activities and outputs is crucial.
At Oracle Academy, we believe all students should have the knowledge and skills to achieve their dreams. In the 21st century, this necessarily includes computer science. We continue to be troubled by the lack of diversity in computing, and frustrated by the apparent failure of the US education system to change the faces and profiles of computer scientists in a significant way.
This latest study provides new insights, and we encourage educators, influencers, and other stakeholders to join us in reconsidering how we engage underrepresented populations in computing.