computer science

Here’s how to increase retention in computer science programs

A new report points to diversity gaps and urges institutions to research how to best build strong and varied computer science programs

A new report addresses the “vitally important” issue of diversity in computer science and offers an array of recommendations to improve retention rates in undergraduate computer science programs.

In “Retention in Computer Science Undergraduate Programs in the U.S.: Data Challenges and Promising Interventions,” the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) encourages higher-ed institutions to offer proactive advising so students are exposed to career opportunities and pathways early in their undergraduate experience.

Addressing the gender and diversity gaps are of utmost importance to computer science programs and careers, according to the authors.

The underrepresentation of women and people from groups underrepresented in computing raises concerns for a variety of reasons, including issues of equity and fairness; the economic and competitive imperative of ensuring a large and diverse U.S. workforce; the fact that better solutions are developed by teams with a diversity of people and perspectives; and the increasing interdependency between American democracy and the ability to understand and navigate the presentation of information through technology.

“Even as ‘CS for All’ has taken on a life of its own in the United States and an increasing number of schools are offering computer science courses, the demographics of the students involved in computing remain stubbornly consistent,” according to the authors. “Despite recent increases in enrollment, by the time students start high school, computer science is predominately the domain of White boys. The percentage of girls and minorities enrolled in computer science classes is far smaller than the percentage of girls and minorities enrolled in school; their representation in computing is disproportionately small. Similar demographics persist in higher education.”

ACM developed the report with a 15-member retention committee, drawn from expert faculty from a varied group of university computer programs and chaired by Chris Stephenson from Google and Alison Derbenwick Miller from Oracle.

Recommendations include:

1. Individual programs should plan data gathering efforts that regularly capture information about student progressions through courses and programs.

2. Educators and administrators need to be aware of barriers to entry as leaks in the retention pipeline are identified.

3. Where possible, institutions should hire data specialists with the expertise and time to provide complete data sets and assist faculty with analysis.

4. Institutions should provide programs, services, and pathways that enable students entering the institution with varying computational backgrounds to succeed in their intended major (especially with regard to computing and mathematics).

5. Educators need resources to help them incorporate real life problems into courses so students have early exposure to the positive societal role of computer science.

6. Educators should provide students with a well-rounded understanding of the discipline of CS and seek to overcome misconceptions.

7. Educators need funding for undergraduate research programs (especially at MSIs) because many students cannot afford to participate in summer programs unless they are compensated at a level equal to what they would earn in a summer job.

The report highlights the need for additional research to gain a more nuanced understanding of the inner workings of attrition and retention.

In addition to its recommendations, the report includes case studies from specific institutions, along with an examination of proven retention interventions.

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Laura Ascione

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