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Programming computer science graduates begins with educators

December 1, 2017

Young women from the Middle East and North Africa at coding camp.
Fostering diversity in computer science education is a priority at Virginia Tech. Here, participants learn programming techniques during Tech Girls, a weeklong Department of State-sponsored coding camp that hosts young women from the Middle East and North Africa.

Companies around the world are clamoring for professionals well versed in computer science.

In a recent LinkedIn survey of the most in-demand skills for 2017, all top 10 spots on the list were computer science-related, ranging from cloud computing to user interface design to mobile development.

Which raises the question, if industry is starving for tech graduates, who is teaching them?    

One faculty member preparing future students for the tech sector is Godmar Back, an associate professor of computer science in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

As a mathematically inclined student growing up in Germany, computers were a natural attraction for Back. In high school he learned the programming languages BASIC,  Z80 Assembly, and later PASCAL, before deciding to study computer science.

“I like that computer science is a discipline that has had such an impact on society,” said Back. “The innovations driven by computer science during the last two decades have fundamentally transformed the way we live and work today. It was exciting to witness these changes, but it is even more exciting to help train the next generation of computer scientists that will continue to drive this innovation.”

Back teaches courses in operating systems, and also coaches the Virginia Tech International Collegiate Programming Contest team. The team has traditionally done well by winning regional contests that qualified for the world championships and has recently enjoyed a lot of success under Back’s direction.

“Today's successful teams have put in not just semesters, but years of practice. That amount of practice is necessary to gain sufficient knowledge of the many algorithms and approaches from several different sub-areas of computer science, such as geometry, searching, graph theory, dynamic programming, and string processing. Practicing these skills in a competitive, but friendly, setting is an approach many students enjoy, and it helps them directly in landing interviews, internships, and jobs with potential employers,” he said.

Having the opportunity to compete on a programming team is just one example of how students at Virginia Tech gain indispensable hands-on experience outside of the classroom.

Studying computer science is more than a way to launch a career in a booming industry, however. It’s also a place where educators work on addressing the much publicized gender gap in the tech sector.

Assistant professor of practice Margaret Ellis teaches introductory computer science classes, such as Software Design and Data Structures and Introduction to Problem Solving, and also serves on the departmental and College of Engineering diversity committees.

“Broadening participation in computing is not just about providing opportunities for nontraditional students, it's about improving our field,” said Ellis. “Diversity also promotes innovation.  We need to welcome as many bright minds as we can and ensure that people do not feel discouraged about joining the field of computer science because they have a stereotype about the type of person who fits in.” 

To this end, Ellis has participated in numerous events that promote diversity in the field of computer science. This past summer for the first time, Ellis and other colleagues from the department, in coordination with the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED), hosted a Department of State-sponsored coding camp called Tech Girls. The camp exposed high school-aged young women from the Middle East and North Africa to coding and culminated in a class where the students were able to develop their own app.

The Department of Computer Science also promotes diversity at the K-12 level through its association with the National Center for Women and Information Technology's Aspiration's in Computing program, a nationwide program that awards young women scholarships, internships, and networking opportunities in technology.

Diversity initiatives on campus are also fostered through living-learning communities, including Hypatia, a women-only community associated with CEED.

“These are the connections and impact that we want, to empower each other and our students in both technical and community endeavors,” said Ellis.

The rigor of a computer science program can also be intimidating for those that start on a computer science trajectory without having been exposed to the field as a hobby or in introductory classes in secondary education.

Professor of computer science Cliff Shaffer’s research area is computer science education itself and has led him to develop strategies to make teaching and learning computer science easier for students. 

In 2017 he was recognized with Virginia Tech’s XCaliber Award, an award presented annually by Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies to recognize individual faculty members or teams of faculty and staff who integrate technology in teaching and learning. 

Shaffer received the award for adding technology to CS3114 Data Structures and Algorithms, a notoriously challenging class for undergraduates.

“There are things about computer science that make it especially hard, such as the dedicated time and focus required to write programs. Another is the difficulty of learning abstractions and the heavy dose of math skills involved,” said Shaffer.

Even given the rigor of the discipline, Shaffer’s philosophy about computer science is reflective of the spirit behind Computer Science Education Week, an initiative that seeks to raise awareness about computer science in myriad ways. Most importantly, Shaffer’s research proves to aspiring students that the discipline can indeed be conquered, as is noted by the social media rallying cry of the computer science education movement, #cs4all.

“In the same way that everyone benefits from some exposure to math, to literature, or history, or art, being exposed for a semester or two to computational thinking can change your world view. The big challenge right now is convincing students that this is true and serving their educational needs in the most effective way,” said Shaffer.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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