IC Ph.D. student Katie Cunningham receives NSF fellowship

School of Interactive Computing Ph.D. student Katie Cunningham was selected last week as a 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recipient.

The fellowship grants Cunningham $34,000 per twelve-month period over the course of a maximum of three years. The financial support may be used in any three 12-month units over the course of a five-year period that begins in 2017.

Cunningham was awarded based on a proposal for research in the field of computing education, a facet of computing she says has become vital to everyday life.

“With so many jobs in that area and such a shift toward technology and automation, it’s important that people know how to deal with computing,” she said.

She aims to examine one particular classroom technique that might be useful for teaching introductory programming.

“I’m interested in examining the kinds of things students draw and sketch when they trace through code,” she said. “Can certain types of sketching help students do better when they learn introductory programming?”

She grew interested in this topic while working as a teacher for a program in California. As she watched students there work with code, she found that they worked solely with the numbers and text on their computer screen.

“They weren’t really drawing,” she said. “I found that the drawing techniques we encouraged were really useful for those students, so I was inspired to study it at Georgia Tech.”

Essentially, the idea is that by drawing or sketching a visual representation of their work as they code, students may be able to better understand the operations of how the computer works.

“It’s a term we call the ‘notional machine,’” Cunningham explained. “It’s this idea of how the computer processes the instructions. I think if students are drawing out the process for how their code is working, that can help them to fully understand how the instructions are working.”

That’s one benefit. Another, she said, is better collaboration. If a student is sketching the process, she posits, the teacher can better see and understand what they’re thinking.

At this point, as with any new research, she is unsure how it will work out. Potentially, though, she sees a scenario in which there is a better understanding of how students are thinking as they work through introductory coding and an easier process of correcting or directing to new approaches.

“Computing education is so new,” she said. “There are so few techniques like this. If it’s just paper and pencil, it could go to high schools. I think a lot of researchers have tried to look at this, but they’ve focused on creating software programs. The danger is that students just watch a visualization. The student needs to be engaged and fully involved in the process to really benefit.”

Cunningham said she was honored to receive the fellowship.

“I feel like this award highlights the importance of this area of computing education,” she said.


David Mitchell

Communications Officer