UMass Amherst shares $6.24 Million NSF grant to improve computer science education

November 15th, 2012
Building on its success in drawing more women and under-represented minority students to study computer science at Massachusetts public colleges and universities over the past five years, the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology Education (CAITE) has won a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and will now take a national leadership role in computer science education.

UMass Amherst's CAITE will share the new five-year, $6.24 million NSF grant with Georgia Computes!, a project at Georgia Tech, to create a national resource for other states that want to learn how to successfully broaden participation in computer science education. Together, the UMass Amherst and Georgia Tech projects will form an Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) alliance to offer new approaches and best practices in computing education to other states seeking the same goals.

As CAITE director Rick Adrion, professor emeritus of computer science at UMass Amherst, and project manager Renee Fall point out, students may decide as early as middle school not to pursue computer science as a career, but a quality experience with computing early on, or even in high school or community college can change that, making computer science or information technology (IT) more attractive.

In Massachusetts, CAITE has done this with notable success. Working with 15 public community college, state university and UMass partners, CAITE has reached more than 21,000 students and over 1,200 educators who attended more than 350 events since the program's start in 2007. On the UMass Amherst campus, CAITE has held several day-long robot-building activity days for middle school girls from across western Massachusetts, as well as FIRST LEGO League coach training workshops for club leaders and professional development for science teachers and college faculty.

Enrollment in information technology courses at Massachusetts community colleges working with CAITE has risen 64 percent and 78 percent in transfer programs from community colleges to four-year universities. CAITE has helped nine campuses to implement supplemental peer instruction for more than 45 courses, which has helped keep more students in the state's programs and raised average letter grades. CAITE has also contributed to an 88 percent increase in under-represented minorities at community college IT programs in the Bay State.

In the University of Massachusetts system, enrollments in computer science are increasing at a greater rate than those at comparable institutions nationally, and community college enrollment in computer science and related courses is up dramatically, with the number of women and under-represented minorities significantly higher since CAITE began. CAITE staff have worked to align two- and four-year curricula and to recruit and support transfer students coming to the UMass campuses.

The new ECEP, part of NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) program, will be a resource for other state programs as they make systemic changes in educational pathways to increase the number and diversity of computing and computing-intensive degree graduates. Georgia Tech's Mark Guzdial and Barbara Ericson, nationally recognized for their work in computer science education and outreach, will co-lead the ECEP project.

"We have a whole menu of best practices that we've tested in Massachusetts and in Georgia to offer other states," says Fall.

Adrion adds, "For computing to be taken seriously at all levels of education, we must define high school computing curricula, increase the number of well-trained and certified high school computing teachers, improve post-secondary degree programs, advising, retention and in general promote computing education reform."

The first state partners for the new ECEP will be California and South Carolina, chosen because they have the population, institutions, workforce demand and individuals or organizations ready to work on computer science education reform.

ECEP partners say that by facilitating state-level change in computing education pathways in their partner and associate states and creating and disseminating models for other states to adopt, they hope the project will have a tremendous impact on "computing pipelines" across the nation.

Mark Guzdial, professor in the Georgia Tech School on Interactive Computing, says, "Georgia Tech has demonstrated the importance of computing education reform and growing the pipeline of potential computer science students within our state. We strongly believe that this new collaboration with UMass Amherst will significantly drive the discipline forward and facilitate systemic change to the educational system."

Provided by University of Massachusetts Amherst

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