Some intriguing news

For the past two years Winter quarter has brought incredible levels of stress. Not only do I teach an extra half class every Winter, but I also have tons of preparation for the SIGCSE Symposium which happens in the late Winter each year. But occasionally something will drag me out of my work haze, and yesterday that something was a CRA report on the latest computer science enrollment boom. Titled Generation CS, the report summary starts:

Across the United States and Canada, universities and colleges are facing a significant increase in enrollment in both undergraduate computer science (CS) courses and programs. The current enrollment surge has exceeded previous CS booms, and there is a general sense that the current growth in enrollment is substantially different than that of the mid-1980s and late 1990s.

I have to start by admitting that I haven’t read the whole report, although I certainly plan to as soon as Winter quarter ends. But the authors have done a great job in breaking things up so that you can dive into the pieces that interest you. And there were two of them.

First, it appears that non-major enrollment is CS is booming. They provide a lot more details in the relevant section, but in short, in every level of course except for the upper-level courses, non-major enrollment growth is outpacing growth in enrollment by majors. This is much different than in previous booms. For those of us who are convinced that there is real innovation to be done by people in other disciplines who know something significant about computing, this is exciting and welcome news.

Second, the worries that many have had that another boom would result in yet more drops in diversity in computing┬áisn’t without merit. The report states:

The CRA Enrollment Survey shows that the percentage of women has grown in all three of the CS major courses surveyed from 2005 to 2015 for both doctoral-granting and non-doctoral granting units.

But the growth in underrepresented students isn’t uniform, and it lags in some places, for example in upper-level courses for women and in certain institutions for minorities. I think we need to all stay cognizant of the idea that approaches to handle this boom need to be constructed to not negatively impact underrepresented groups.

There is much more there, of course, and I haven’t even adequately summarized the two sections that I mentioned. So you should definitely read the whole thing. I know I will as soon as Winter quarter loosens its grip on me.

Working group withdrawal

I got the news today that the report for the working group that I participated in last July in Peru has been published. The title of our report is Negotiating the Maze of Academic Integrity in Computing Education. In it, we examined the attitudes and approaches to academic integrity taken by professionals and academics, and as you might have guessed there is a substantial gap between the two groups. We also proposed a new approach to academic integrity for academics. I’m excited that I’ll have a chance to talk about the work at the ACM Turing 50th Celebration Conference taking place in China in May 2017. My thanks to my co-authors for their work and for allowing me to make it the topic of my invited talk.

This week I also saw that the working groups for ITiCSE 2017 have been posted. As excited as I am to see that they are offering nine of them this year, it was a sad moment for me. As SIGCSE chair I need to be available to talk to people at all the SIGCSE conferences, and that means I won’t be participating in another working group until 2020. There are multiple working groups that would be amazing to join in 2017, so it’s tough to not be able to apply. But let my loss be your gain: apply for one of the groups! It’s a lot of work, but it’s even more fun. You won’t regret it.


A little creativity goes a long way

Like most instructors, I don’t enjoy grading. Yes, it’s necessary and provides useful feedback, like meetings and answering email, but it is also boring and tedious. But occasionally students will do things that make me laugh a bit when I’m grading, and I’m highly appreciative.

For the most recent assignment in the accelerated Python class I asked them to write a function that takes a name as a parameter (e.g. Djengo, in an arbitrary capitalization) and prints a message using that name. The specified message is below:

Djengo, I love you so.
You brighten my day.
Oh, D J E N G O !
I wish you could be with me always.
But alas, Djengo, you must stay away.

I told them in class that I would accept alternate messages (and told them that the names given as examples were my cats so that they wouldn’t feel too weird about writing love notes in a programming class). I got a couple of great ones when I graded the assignment. The first was a riff on what I wrote, and much more romantic than the original:

My dearest Djengo, how I miss you!
Hardly a day goes by without you crossing my mind
Oh, D J E N G O !
I promise my love,
I will see you soon, Djengo

But my favorite was one that changed the context of the love from romantic to parental and added a Star Wars twist:

Djengo, I love you so.
You brighten my day.
Oh, D J E N G O !
I wish you could be with me always.
We could rule the galaxy together as father and Djengo.
But alas, Djengo, I must lightsaber your arm off now!

Sometimes my students make me very happy.

A new attendance theory

One of my favorite running (rather unscientific) experiments is attendance. For years I’ve tracked attendance in my classes, partially as a way to learn names and partially as a way to know who was and wasn’t showing up (so that I could tell them to start coming if they asked about how to do better in the class). And I believed that tracking attendance improved attendance. I even came up with a theory about it: tracking attendance sent the message that it was important to me, so they showed up.

I’m sad to say that this quarter has given me a new theory: students don’t read the syllabus so they don’t know that attendance doesn’t count. The new theory developed as a result of a student who shouldn’t be in any introductory programming course. He’s already taken many more advanced courses, so it’s doubtful that he’ll learn anything. But he had good reasons for needing another four credits, so he’s in my accelerated, intermediate Python class. And on the very first day of class he asked if attendance is required. I admitted that it’s not, although I did say that track it and believe it to be important. He hasn’t shown up since.

The impact of the public announcement has been swift and clear: three weeks into the quarter only 29% of my students still have perfect attendance. For contrast, last quarter in the same class at the same point, 48% of students had perfect attendance. If you don’t like me comparing across quarters, one year ago in the same class at the same point, 64% of students had perfect attendance. This is the worst attendance that I’ve had in any class in any quarter that I can remember since I started tracking attendance. Given that I teach this class every quarter and more or less the same way, the only difference I can find is the public statement on the first day that attendance doesn’t count for part of the grade.

Before you ask: no, I don’t want to make attendance mandatory. I dislike the idea, and I hate the logistics of having to deal with excuses. But I also feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea that I’m tricking them into showing up, which it would appear is what’s been happening. On the other hand, I do think that showing up is good for them. So even though I’ve come to believe that I’m relying on their ignorance to trick them into showing up, I’m likely to continue it. I just can’t decide if that makes me clever, awful, or both.

A resolution for 2017

I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions, although I have previously written about some work resolutions. But I’m coming to realize that they can help focus me, so I have a single resolution for 2017: I would like to take every weekend off from work.

Yes, that sounds radical to anyone who knows me. And given that I will serve as SIGCSE chair while teaching a full load and trying to do some research, it may be slightly unrealistic. But I think I have to push myself if I’m going to avoid burning out, something that I’ve struggled with in the past few years. So I will give it my all every weekend to not do any work other than email, since it’s really not fair to leave my students high and dry for 48 hours. Wish me luck!

Our learning community in the (DePaul) news

I’m happy to report that our linked-courses learning community is in the news! Ok, it’s the DePaul internal magazine, but still I’m pretty excited. The article is titled CDM Learning Communities Improved Retention and Academic Performance.

The only bad news I have to report is that the data from the second cohort isn’t as good as from the first. That will appear in a future paper. But we have high hopes for the third cohort, and we’re planning for a fourth!

Students who know me

I’ve written many times in this blog on my changing relationship with my students. The posts are too numerous to mention here, but I think a good summary is that I’ve become more relaxed with students. That has lots of positive benefits, and it’s made me appreciate how our interactions have evolved.

One thing I only realized this academic year is that my changing interactions with students has resulted in (some of) them understanding me better. For example, this past quarter some of my former students came to an event for our learning community, both to serve as mentors and to advertise an organization with which they are involved. After the event they were planning on attending a petting zoo at the Lincoln Park campus, and in an email exchange I later asked one of them about the petting zoo. He sent me the picture below:


It made me so happy that he sent the picture, because it gave me a much better sense of how much fun they had. Plus, I think he knows how crazy I am for animals, which I believe is partially why he shared it.

In another example, a former student of mine began babysitting my daughter a while ago. She is a sweetheart, and every year she gets us something for Christmas. This year she gave us two gifts that show me how well she knows us:


We adore cats, and one of my favorite treats of all time are dark chocolate liquor bottles. So her gift clearly hit the mark.

I don’t think it’s necessary that students know me. Frankly, students can be completely clueless about who I am as a person, as the majority of them are, and still learn effectively in my classes. But that I have a few students who so clearly know me well makes me happy.