TITLE: Grades and Verticality AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 12, 2006 2:21 PM DESC: ----- BODY: The next book on my nightstand is Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt. The dean and department heads in my college have had an ongoing discussion of national trends in university enrollment in mathematics and the sciences, because all of our departments with the exception of biology have seen their number of majors drop in recent years. If we can understand the issue better, perhaps we can address it. Are students losing interest in the sciences in college? In high school? In grade school? Why? One of the common themes on this blog for the last year or so has been apparent declining interest in CS among students both at the university and in the K-12 system. At this point, all I know is that this is a complex problem with a lot of different components. Figuring out which components play the largest role, and which ones we as university faculty and as citizens can affect, is the challenge. My net acquaintance Chad Orzel, a physicist, recently commented on why they're leaving, drawing his inspiration from an Inside Higher Ed piece of the same name. That article offers four explanations for why students leave the physical sciences and engineering disciplines: lower GPAs, weed-out courses, large and impersonal sections, and "vertical curricula". The last of these refers to the fact that students in our disciplines often have to "slog" through a bunch of introductory skills courses before they are ready to do the intersting work of science. While Chad teaches at a small private college, my experience here at a mid-size public university seems to match with his. We don't have many large sections in computer science at UNI. For a couple of years, my department experimented with 100-person CS1 sections as a way to leverage faculty expertise in a particular language against our large enrollments. (Irony!) But for the most part our sections have always been 35 or less. I once taught a 53-person section of our third course (at that time, object-oriented programming), but that was an aberration. Our students generally have small sections with plenty of chance to work closely with the tenure-track faculty who teach them. We've never had a weed-out course, at least not intentionally. Many of our students take Calculus and may view that as a weeder, but my impression from talking to our students is that this is nothing like the brutal weed-out courses used in many programs to get enrollments down to a manageable size of sufficient quality. These days, the closest thing we have to a weed-out course is our current third course, Data Structures. It certainly acts as a gatekeeper, but it's mostly a matter of programming practice; students who apply themselves to the expectations of the instructor ought to be able to succeed. The other two issues are problems for us. The average GPA of a computer science student is almost surely well below the university average. I haven't seen a list of average GPAs sorted by department in many years, but the last few times I did CS and economics seemed to be jostling for the bottom. These are not disciplines that attract lots and lots of weak students, so grading practices in the departments must play a big role. As the Inside Higher Ed article points out, This culture of grading is common in the natural sciences and the more quantitative social sciences at most universities. I don't doubt that many students are dissuaded from pursuing a CS major by even a B in an intro course. Heck, they get As in their other courses, so maybe they are better suited for those majors? And even the ones who realize that this is an illogical deduction may figure that their lives will simply be easier with a different major. I won't speak much of the other problem area for us, because I've written about it a lot recently. I've never used the word "vertical" to describe our problem of boring intro courses that hide or kill the joy of doing computing before students ever get to see it, but I've certainly written about the issue. Any student who graduates high school with the ability to read is ready for a major in history or communication; the same student probably needs to learn a programming language, learn how to write code, and figure out a lot of new terminology before being ready to "go deep" in CS. I think we can do better, but figuring out how is a challenge. I must point out, though, that the sciences are not alone in the problem of a vertical curriculum. As an undergraduate, I double-majored in CS and accounting. When I switched from architecture to CS, I knew that CS was what I wanted to do, but my parents encouraged me to take a "practical" second major as insurance. I actually liked accounting just fine, but only because I saw past all of the bookkeeping. It wasn't until I got to managerial accounting as a junior and auditing as a senior that I got to the intellectually interesting part of accounting, how one models an organization in terms of its financial system in order to understand how to make it stronger. Before that came two years of what was, to me, rather dull bookkeeping -- learning the "basics" so that we could get to the professional activities. I often tell students today that accounting is more interesting than it probably seems for the first one, two, or three years. Computer science may not have moved much faster back then. I took a one-quarter CS 1 to learn how to program (in Fortran), a one-quarter data structures course, and a couple of courses in assembly language, job control language, and systems programming, but within three or four quarters I was taking courses in upper-division content such as databases, operating systems, and programming languages -- all of which seemed like the Real Thing. One final note. I actually read the articles mentioned at the beginning of this essay after following a link from another piece by Chad, called Science Is Not a Path to Riches. In it, Chad says:
A career in research science is not a path to riches, or even stable employment. Anyone who thinks so is sadly deluded, and if sure promotion and a fat paycheck are your primary goal (and you're good at math), you should become an actuary or an accountant or something in that vein. A career in research science can be very rewarding, but the rewards are not necessarily financial (though I hasten to add, I'm not making a bad living, either).
This is one place where we differ from physicists and chemists. By and large, CS graduates do get good jobs. Even in times of economic downturn, most of our grads do pretty well finding and keeping jobs that pay above average for where they live. Our department is willing to advertise this when we can. We don't want interested kids to turn away because they think they can't get a job, because all the good jobs are going to India. Even still, I am reluctant to over-emphasize the prospect of financial reward. For one thing, as the mutual fund companies all have to tell us, "past performance is no guarantee of future results". But more importantly, intrinsic interest matters a lot, too, perhaps more so than extrinsic financial reward, when it comes to finding a major and career path that works. I'd also like to attract kids because CS is fun, exciting, and worth doing. That's where the real problem of 'verticality' comes in. We don't want kids who might be interested to turn away because the discipline looks like a boring grind. I hope to learn more about this systemic problem from the empirical data presented in Talking About Leaving, and use that to figure out how we can do better. -----