School of Interactive Computing Ph.D. student Katie Cunningham was about to complete her undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona when she came to a crossroads of sorts.
As she neared completion of a double major in computer science and biology, like many college students or recent graduates, she was struggling to figure out the direction she wanted her career to take. Initially, she had planned on a career in computational biology, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“I had a tough time with my honor’s thesis project in computational biology and wasn’t sure that’s where I wanted to go with my career,” Cunningham explained. “I think I was a little unsure what a future in that field would look like for me.”
Although she had to briefly re-examine what she was passionate about, it didn’t take long for that passion to be discovered and put to great use in incredibly unique fashion.
An Unexpected Opportunity
To gain some clarity on where she wanted to take her career, Cunningham thought back to some of the things that had always interested her during her undergraduate education. She had done a lot of computer science teaching, working with scientists and students in other fields to help them learn Python and programming, and she was passionate about women in technology and helping to bring the field to assorted underrepresented groups.
She had taken to keeping a personal blog, where she would discuss varying related topics. It was about gender and technology, about creating environments of inclusion in computer science to make it more inviting to a broader range of people. More broadly, it was about computer science education as a whole – it’s strengths and weaknesses, areas that needed improvement and how the computer science community could make strides in the right direction.
The more she wrote about and investigated the topics, the more they informed what she wanted to pursue.
“I was like, ‘You know what – is there any way I can make a career out of this?” she said.
As it turned out, there was.
Before long, she got a call from Sathya Narayanan, an associate professor at California State, Monterey Bay, in the School of Computing and Design. He was the director of a program called CSin3, a three-year computer science program that guided cohorts of students from an affiliated community college, Hartnell College, through their bachelor’s degree at CSU, Monterey Bay.
Narayanan and his co-director at the time, Joe Welch, had learned of Cunningham on social media and through her blog, and found her perspectives interesting and attractive for his program.
“We had been trying to fill this education coordinator position for the program for a while and had only received a handful of applications,” Narayanan said. “Finally, one day, I had an email from Joe forwarding a blog post from Katie with the words ‘CS education coordinator?’. I could see that she was sort of the model of what we wanted that position to be. I wrote to her and asked if she had time to talk. I really liked her, and we brought her out to visit.”
The rest, as they say, was history.
An Eye-Opening Experience
Without necessarily knowing what shape she wanted her career in computer science education to take, Cunningham had landed a job in a unique program that brought the subject to a wide variety of students – many students who were children of parents who had never attended college, many who had struggled in high school, and many who had tried college once before and were giving it another shot.
“That was eye-opening, the stratification of the United States,” Cunningham said. “It’s much more common to have an educational experience like what the students were having at the community college than something like we have here at Tech.”
And so, while working with CSin3 in California, Cunningham saw firsthand a program that created a positive and inclusive environment for new computer science students.
“They knew that students would be really interested in combining computer science with other things,” she said. “You can use CS to help you with biology or with sports. Their recruiting was informed by all the things I was so interested in. They were able to have students in the program that were fairly representative of the region they were in.”
And, ultimately, that experience is what brought her to Georgia Tech, where she researches at the intersection of cognitive science and computing education. She saw in Professor Mark Guzdial’s lab a lot of the same goals and emphases that she saw in California.
“It is kind of funny the progression – to go from one field of CS to writing a blog about some of the things I was really interested in,” she said. “Now, I’m here studying what really interests me. Things have kind of come full circle, I guess you could say.”
Cunningham will be presenting at SIGCSE this week a paper that examines the cohort-based CSin3 program in California. The paper is titled Upward Mobility for Underrepresented Students: A Model for a Cohort-Based Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, and was named a best paper at the conference.
The conference is being held on Feb. 21-24 in Baltimore, Maryland.