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Report: Data Challenges and Retention Offer Barriers to Equity in CS Education

Small group of university students working on computer

A new report from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) asks whether there's anything to be done for the lack of diversity in the tech field, which seems to arise in high school and college and percolate into the workforce from there. The research project called on university representatives and industry experts to examine questions of diversity in computer science. They offered two big conclusions: First, retention in CS is a major issue; and, second, data collection about retention in CS is poor.

As the report noted, even though computer-science-for-all "has taken on a life of its own in the United States and an increasing number of schools are offering CS courses, the demographics of the students involved in computing remain stubbornly consistent." By the time students hit high school, the report stated, "CS is predominately the domain of White boys." The share of girls and minorities enrolled in CS classes "is far smaller than the percentage of girls and minorities enrolled in school." Those disproportionately small representations "persist in higher education."

For example, although women earned half of the bachelor's degrees in science and engineering for 2016, they accounted for just 18 percent of degrees in computing science; the percentage was even lower for women of color. In 2015, doctoral-granting schools issued only 8 percent of all computer science degrees to Latinx students and 4 percent to African-American students.

The ACM Education Board recruited a 15-member "retention committee," made up of expert faculty from a group of university computer science programs. It was co-chaired by Chris Stephenson, the head of Computer Science Education Programs at Google, and Alison Derbenwick Miller, the vice president of Oracle Academy at Oracle.

Among the panel's key recommendations, the report calls for additional research to provide a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of attrition and retention, and encourages higher education institutions to provide proactive advising to ensure that students are exposed to career opportunities and pathways early in their undergraduate experience.

"Diversity in the computing field is a vitally important issue," said Stephenson, in a statement. "It is a matter of equity and fairness to ensure that all people have access to the broad career opportunities and excellent salaries that a career in computing can offer. At the same time, it is an economic imperative for the United States to have a large and diverse tech workforce. Better solutions are developed by teams with a diversity of people and perspectives."

She added that retention in college computing programs is a core topic of concern. After all, she observed, "If we are not attracting and retaining a diverse population of students in computer science programs during the students' academic careers, we will not see a diverse workforce in computing emerge."

Miller added that addressing diversity will require better data and a better understanding of what's meant by "retention." "This paper is an important step forward in that it illuminates the existing data and challenges with defining retention, and ultimately encourages more research in this area," she noted. "Simultaneously, it offers insights into interventions that have been effective, providing opportunities for institutions and stakeholders to continue to work toward increased diversity in computing for today's students even as more empirical research is done."

As Miller pointed out, the report is packed with recommendations. In the area of data collection and analysis, the participants offered these ideas:

  • Doing better research to provide a more nuanced understanding of attrition and retention, including identifying the factors that decrease retention and figuring out how to address them;
  • Implementing more regular data-gathering on student retention as they move through programs or drop out; and
  • Increasing institutional resources, such as data specialists, to work with faculty on sourcing, aggregating, analyzing and reporting on retention data, and bringing in instructors of introductory courses to involve them in data collection.

The report also offered an overview of specific barriers to retention and some promising interventions to overcome them:

  • Helping students understand CS better. According to the report, students are coming to college with misconceptions about computing, including stereotypes of computer scientists that aren't real. Interventions might include using students as "near-peer ambassadors" in outreach; holding orientation sessions to show off student team projects; educating counselors and parents about CS; and building courses around "compelling contexts," such as image processing, robotics, art and music.
  • Addressing varied backgrounds of students to prevent those who might be overwhelmed by others in their courses from bolting. Interventions could include summer bridge programs, tutoring for introductory topics, offering elective courses that address the gaps, providing variations in how the introductory sequence of classes flows and figuring out how to respond to students who ask advanced-level questions in class that may both show their excitement about the material while also intimidating other students.
  • Increasing "helpful collaboration," to challenge students with work that may stretch their current abilities, help them recognize that "getting stuck on a problem is normal" and encourage them to make connections with their peers in class. For example, the report suggested that "pair programming" has been shown to promote learning, improve the quality of code and boost student retention.
  • Building a "safe learning culture" and emphasizing opportunities that will help students increase their sense of belonging. Among the retention strategies suggested: sending students to conferences or events targeted to specific populations, attributing success to effort and practice and offering personal encouragement to students.

There is no "silver bullet" for transforming an institution into "an inclusive and equitable learning environment," the authors stated. Nor is it a quick-fix kind of problem. "Continued success requires continued effort," the report concluded. "The underrepresentation of women and people of color of all genders in CS arises from a broad range of systemic social constructs and issues which traditionally have defined some groups as more capable and/or more deserving than others. Because these constructs change very slowly, issues of equity will continue to be pressing in all fields including computing and therefore will require continued vigilance and determined effort."

The report is openly available on the ACM website.

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