New Approach to Introductory Computing Praised by Non-CS Students

July 11, 2003

Most students at Tech will tell you that introductory computer science (CS) courses are not considered “user-friendly”—especially for non-CS majors and non-Engineering majors. In particular, non-CS majors have voiced concerns about the irrelevance of introductory CS content to their diverse fields of study. In fact, CS programs nationwide have witnessed dramatically low retention rates and failure rates as high as 50 percent.

Recent studies by the American Association of University Women show that the kinds of concerns voiced by Georgia Tech students have had an especially negative impact on female participation in CS. Margolis and Fisher’s book titled “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing,” suggests that many students view computing courses as overly technical, boring, and lacking opportunities for creativity and relationships to real application. The book suggests that women in particular find this view of computing unappealing enough to stay away.

One course offered as a pilot this spring in the College of Computing, however, may forever change the landscape for non-CS majors. Titled “Introduction to Media Computation,” the pilot offering of the course included 120 students, two-thirds of whom were women. The course uses “computation for communication” as a guiding principle. CS1315 students study and create programs that manipulate sound, images and movies. Students program in Jython (JES), an implementation of the programming language Python integrated with Java. Specialized technology for the course was developed by a team of undergraduate students and includes an environment for programming in JES and a suite of applications that support students’ exploration of media.

“The technology built for the course was more effective than we anticipated, given the pilot nature of the course and the software,” said Associate Professor Mark Guzdial, who created and taught the pilot course. “The results in our first offering of the course have been remarkable,” he said. Ph.D. student and research assistant Andrea Forte said, “while we are still in the process of exploring its effectiveness as a learning environment, I think the simplicity of JES’ design contributed to students’ success.”

By drop day, only three students out of 120 had dropped the class, resulting in one of the highest retention rates in CoC history for an introductory programming course for non-majors.

“Many students run in fear of CS1321, and it is a lot of pressure for non-CS majors, so we decided to develop a pilot course (CS1315) that was less intimidating, but equally challenging,” said Guzdial.

Computer science classes traditionally emphasize issues such as speed of solutions because historically computers were slow in solving generalized problems. Instead, CS1315 emphasizes real-world applications of computing and creative social experiences with computing. Students learn to program in the context of learning how to use computers for communication, as opposed to calculation, an important distinction for non-CS majors.

When asked what they like about the class, students affirmed that the pilot program is succeeding at establishing a course that students recognize as relevant even among non-CS majors. One female student said, “I dreaded CS, but all of the topics thus far have been applicable to my future career and personal plans. There isn’t anything I don’t like about this class!”

Georgia Tech requires all students to take an introductory course in computing, including programming skills. The traditional course is undoubtedly one of the most unpopular courses on campus, especially among non-CS majors. Results from the pilot course in media computation, however, indicate that the new approach appeals to liberal arts majors and yet retains a focus on programming.

Guzdial says, “Programming and computation will inevitably become part of a general liberal education, but computing courses will need to continue evolving for this to happen.”

Students in the pilot offering of Media Computation were surveyed at the beginning of the course this past spring along with students from 2 other introductory computing courses— CS 1321 (required for CS majors) and COE1361 (required for engineering majors). Andrea Forte wrote the survey with input from Guzdial, and responses were collected and analyzed with assistance from Rachel Fithian and undergraduate Lauren Rich. The survey responses indicated that at the beginning of the semester, students in different introductory CS courses had different perceptions about computer science. By the end of the courses, however, perceptions among students were much more similar, suggesting that parallel conceptions or understanding about CS arose from students in all three courses. Results also indicated that students in Media Computation appreciated the relevance of the course and even found computer science interesting. Students wrote eight programs (six collaboratively and two individually) involving the creation or manipulation of pictures, sounds, HTML pages and movies, with some of their programs reaching over 100 lines of code. Some students reported that they did programming on their own time “just for fun,” to do things like play songs backwards or manipulate their personal photographs.

Teaching assistants who helped make the pilot offering successful were undergraduates Jim Gruen, Angela Liang, Larry Olson, Matt Wallace, Adam Wilson, and Ph.D. student Jose Zagal. Guzdial will teach two sections in the fall with an expected enrollment of 240 students. CoC Associate Professor Colin Potts and CoC Assistant Professor Blair MacIntyre will join Guzdial to teach CS1315 in the spring of 2004. The expected enrollment for spring is 360 students.

Other colleges and universities have taken notice of the pilot’s success and some have started implementing the approach as well. Gainesville College started a Media Computation class this summer with 12 students (9 female). Charles Fowler of Gainesville is working closely with Guzdial’s team to evaluate how the class works to adapt materials at a variety of institutions. Other schools in the University System are talking with Guzdial about how to adapt the approach for their curricula as well.