Step 69: Define My Role in Addressing Diversity

As a STEM professor, what do you see your role is in addressing the lack of diversity in STEM?

My colleague tweeted this question from her student this past week. I realized I didn’t have a good answer. Mostly when I think about diversity, I think about specific things I have done, but I don’t think of them as my role, since I only came up with those actions ad-hoc, while the bigger question is about my overall approach to and vision of diversity. The question also asks specifically about my role as a professor in a STEM field, which again is not something I have considered.

Part of my hesitation in giving a clear answer to the question is that I do things that help diversity computer science, but diversity was not the main goal. For example, I’ve written about the lab where students must confront their implicit assumptions about how names, ages, genders, locations, phone numbers, etc. should be represented in a program. To use the obvious example, if they used a Boolean is_male to represent gender, then their program necessarily will not be able to accommodate alternate gender identities. While this is an exercise that brings issues of diversity and bias to the foreground – and I wrote the previous blog post that way – for me it was more important that students understand that they are making implicit decisions as they write code. My goal was to make those decisions explicit, even given the possibility of students deliberately choose to only represent binary genders.

There are other examples as well: choosing to work with a community partner that serves urban LA was a semi-deliberate choice, and both expands my and my students’ horizons and serves as a high-impact practice to engage underrepresented students, but my thoughts were more focused on how designing for a non-tech-savvy user base would be a good challenge. Hosting Hours of Code may make computer science more accessible to women and students of color, but again most of my thoughts are on getting the general population excited about technology and growing the computer science program.

Reflecting on these examples, what I would argue is that diversity is not a terminal goal for me – that is, I don’t think I am pursuing diversity for the sake of diversity. What I think I am pursuing is helping my students be better computer scientists, better intellectuals, and better… people. And I think just from that goal there are many places where diversity matters. Some of my students are students of color and first-generation students, and the support and mentorship they might need is different from my other students whose parents have advanced degrees. My students who are studying computer science should know that the Silicon Valley tech startup bubble is just a very small, very rich, and very homogeneous part of the world, and writing programs that only target that population is neglecting the “unexotic underclass”. And for all potential future students, I want to make sure I am not restricted by the few students who have are lucky to have previous experience, and that others can see how the discipline can contribute to whatever other field they are exploring, including social justice and inclusion if they so choose.

As a STEM professor, I have the privilege of influencing how my students develop. My role in addressing the lack of diversity is to ensure that students have the resources to succeed. Whether this means support, mentoring, awareness, exposure, or opportunity, I hope to see these students become thoughtful individuals who themselves are concerned with inclusion.

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Step 69: Define My Role in Addressing Diversity

Step 68: Place Advanced CS Students

I want to talk about student placement a little bit.

The most obvious placement is if students have taken AP Computer Science. APCS has changed since I took it in the 2004-2005 school year. I only recently learned that they discontinued APCS AB in 2009 (according to Wikipedia, due to lack of student interest). What has continued is APCS A, which includes variables, branches, and classes, but not data structures or recursion. Without deliberately designing for APCS, our two-course core sequence breaks cleanly at OOP, with inheritance straddling the line. Our current policy is that doing well on the APCS exam (a 4 or a 5) allows students to take the second course.

Increasingly, however, I’m finding students who has computer science experience but who did not take APCS. For example, I currently have a student whose parents work in the tech industry, and so have spent the last year learning Java and Python by following books and online tutorials. Two different students are enrolled in Edx’s version of Harvard’s CS50, and one of them is asking if we will give credit for it. (It turns out Oxy does not have a “no online courses” policy, which made my life difficult.) CS50, in particular, uses C, which means students get a decent grounding in loops and arrays, but with no experience with classes and OOP.

This is a problem, because now the students can’t go directly to the second course, but half of the first course also fails to provide a challenge. The discussions I’ve read over from other schools advocate for erring on the side of letting these students catch up in more advanced courses. We have yet to offer the second course, at least after we restructured the curriculum last year, so it may be possible to accommodate these students. Even if the syllabus doesn’t change, I don’t feel classes are too difficult a concept to grasp, so the extra work may not be overwhelming.

Since we haven’t formalized a policy, the de facto result is that these students are in my CS1 course. I’m lucky that so far they have not directly affected the learning atmosphere in any serious way – for example, by asking questions that show they clearly know more, thereby intimidating other students. In fact, I deliberately pair them up with weaker students in lab, which provides an opportunity for peer learning. Groups with hetergeneous skill levels is still possible without the advanced students, of course, but the mutual recognition of their status between the student and me has led to valuable conversations about pedagogy.

The last thing I will say is that I have been watching how these students react to the material. While they are already familiar with loops, their computational thinking/problem solving speed is surprisingly not much faster than the best students who do not have any experience. Most of these students learned a language other than Python, but I don’t think that completely explains the lack of a gap. I don’t have a good alternate hypothesis, however, outside of the general notion that they have yet to internalize the structural and procedural abstractions of a seasoned programmer, which only comes with experience. For now, the short in class brain-teasers still make them think, and I take it as a sign that it’s at least not a complete waste of their time.

Looking ahead, I expect the number of self-taught computer science students will increase, as MOOCs and other online resources gain visibility, and I foresee formally deciding on the placement criteria soon. My current ideal is to get administrative permission for some students to take the course for half the usual credits, which would allow more granular placement. One can dream.

Step 68: Place Advanced CS Students

Step 67: Learn from Summer Research Students

In addition to mentoring a research student, this summer I also volunteered to be an “area coordinator”. The idea is that I serve as a second mentor for a group of about ten students roughly in the same area of research (psychology or cognitive science), to be available for students who may not be part of a lab. In practice, however, most students on campus over the summer know others who are also doing research, so they have social support outside of the area group.

This left me with about an hour a week with these students to fill. The role I decided to take is to introduce students to being a researcher – while the advisor of their specific project focuses on whatever subject they are exploring, I can instead talk about obstacles in doing research. Early on, as students got used to summer research, I talked about finding the right relationship with their advisor. I drew partially from the grad school experiences of my own and of other students, but also from Handelsman et al.’s Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists. The pamphlet was a great resource, as it contained reflection questions for both mentors and mentees. One such question, “Would you like to be able to spend more time with your mentor?”, was one for which different students at Michigan had different preferences. Discussing this question with the students likely led to me asking for semi-weekly check-ins, breaking free of the mold from grad school.

Around week three of I spent one hour talking about the administrative details of research – how to filter through the deluge of papers, how to stay organized with all the findings, as well as how to remain (relatively) stress-free. I had several insights here. First, it wasn’t until that point when I realized students might never have faced this amount of reading before. While a social science course may assign a hundred pages a night, the skills for skimming one long source is different from selecting from hundreds of sources. Strangely, I am not sure where I learned to filter through papers either, and I’ve never asked students to do it as part of a course. In fact, this realization came in useful recently, as I am mentoring a student for their comprehensive project and I had to talk them through this process.

It wasn’t clear at first how useful it would be for me to talk about work-life balance. Summer research has lower expectations and is not as all-consuming as grad school. I think it was ultimately useful to bring it up, though, as I’ve heard from multiple students that they feel under pressure simply from not absorbing the material as quickly as they would like – even if their expectations may not be realistic to begin with. Depending on the student, I have found that they sometimes will push themselves to spend more time on the problem, when taking a break may be a more productive path forward. Again, I am learning how to adjust the reins for each student, and when to reach out and offer assistance.

One topic that I didn’t think would be interesting, but which occupied one meeting, was the career path of an academic. More than half of the students in my area group are considering grad school, so we naturally spent time on the application process and grad student life. What caught their attention instead was my personal path to my current position, and what the next couple years would look like for me. In this case, students had no real need to understand the tenure and promotion system, but simultaneously I am also surprised that I have never explained this topic before.

The final thing I will say about this experience is that, although I tried to spend time on technical writing, I did not have any material that would let me do so. I resorted to advising that students read through The Elements of Style, but that seems inadequate and weak compared to critiquing real writing. From my summer student, I do now have the full history of a piece of writing as it goes through the editing process, but I still lack the pedagogical content knowledge to teach writing to more than one student at a time. Since I eventually intend to teach first-year writing, this is a shortcoming I would like to rectify.

Although I enjoyed being an area coordinator this summer, I am not sure I would do it again. If I were to reprise the role, I would like to define more concrete goals for the students, as opposed to the ad-hoc curriculum I created this summer. The rewards of leading the sessions is not quite worth the time I put in, and given my overall inability to find balance in my research, I should probably spend more effort there instead.

Step 67: Learn from Summer Research Students

Step 66: Embrace the Liberal Arts

I noticed a curious trend in the classes I’m teaching:

  • For Intro to Cog Sci, we are moving to a model of short response papers for every lecture, mostly graded for completion but with randomized occasional feedback, plus three papers, a midterm, and a final. This is compared to last year’s model where we had required forum posts, then longer homeworks, midterms, and a final.
  • For Intro to Computer Science, I started the semester presenting why students should study computer science, but also presented a list of news articles about societal implications of improperly-thought-out technology (for example, not training your AI on people of color). I am also offering extra credit for an edited paper on increasing diversity in Oxy’s computer science program.
  • The Practicum course that I am teaching had their first visit to the community partner this week. The plan was for them to learn about what their project really entails, but as part of the presentation, they also got a lecture on the media bias towards violence and away from poverty.

The trend I’m seeing is the inclusion and emphasis on liberal arts topics – not just “soft” people skills, but drawing in and including more liberal arts topics in science classes. The strange thing is that I have not thought about these changes as deliberately broadening the scope of these classes. Rather, the intention has generally been to get students to engage more deeply. It’s interesting to me that these two goals have the same outcome at all – I can imagine making computer science more engaging by diving ever deeper into technical topics, and in fact I can think of students who probably will enjoy the journey from loops to recursion to higher-order functions to monads.

I do see the appeal of higher and higher levels of abstraction, but its inappropriateness for introductory courses aside, it just feels like the wrong kind of complexity. This seems related to my against the model CS curriculum, and the concreteness makes it easier to analyse. I don’t think it’s just that these connections are application-oriented, as opposed to theory-oriented; it’s explicitly the reaching across disciplines that excite me. I’m not sure I can justify this bias outside of saying that I like generalists.

This post is neither here nor there, and I thought I would have more to say about where my classes are going. I’ll just stop.

Step 66: Embrace the Liberal Arts