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NSF CAREER Award Further Validates Lewis’ Research on Effective Computer Science Education | Computing

Since she was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, Colleen M. Lewis has focused most of her research efforts on teaching methods in computer science, with the ultimate goal of increasing access .

Colleen M. Lewis

The Illinois computer science professor continued that effort here, most recently culminating in a new form of validation. In February, Lewis learned that the NSF CAREER Award would fund his efforts for five years.

This specific project, entitled “Physical representations of programming concepts”, aims to “improve the teaching and learning of computer science (CS)”. To do this, he will determine “if and how high school and college students learn from physical or written representations of programming concepts”.

Considering that her work, since 2009, led to this moment, how did she sustain the energy and perseverance needed to see it through?

“I consider it an act of love to try to support people in their teaching,” Lewis said. “And with the NSF CAREER Award, I’m excited for the opportunity for this work to grow. As I delve deeper into this topic, I’m sure there will be nuggets to help students better understand the abstract ideas in computing.

Prior to joining Illinois CS, Lewis served on the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in California, where the primary focus was on teaching.

From a technical point of view, she came across a constant hiccup in teaching computer science. Compared to, say, the teaching of mathematics, the CS methodology seemed incomplete.

That’s not really surprising, given that computer science — taught at the college level since the 1960s or 1970s — is still a relatively new discipline compared to math.

What Lewis found was that math teachers can teach the abstract in more concrete ways.

“There is a transition where most disciplines can go from a physical object to images of objects, and ultimately they have symbols. If students do not understand the symbols, they can go back to the pictures. If they don’t understand the images, they can go back to the physical object,” Lewis said. “I had this realization in my teaching Java, that I was giving students the abstract version; or the Java code itself. And I gave them the picture; it is these memory models that we often draw in class. But I didn’t give them the symbol.

“My classes were so helpful and honest about what worked and what didn’t, so I had the opportunity to try to refine that concept to try to bring abstract ideas to life.

As she continued to consider the goal of comparing and evaluating various methods of teaching computer science to students, Lewis discovered another flaw.

That moment came when she was teaching primarily using Java, which is the programming language of choice for the Advanced Placement Computer Science A (APPCSA) course. This is the base level to begin teaching computer science across the country, but Lewis has come to understand that Java is “unequally accessible in the country by race and class. And women, even if their school offers it, are much less likely to take it.

She’s already made strides in offsetting this problem through previous research on a site she called CSTeachingTips.org and collaborative efforts with Los Angeles high schools.

Thanks to the NSF CAREER Award, these efforts will continue to grow. This will support Lewis as she moves forward in developing relationships with the Chicago public school system on the same topic.

“Without ACSSA as a benchmark for your computer science education, it’s harder to succeed in studying computer science at the college level,” Lewis said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to partner with the Chicago Public Schools District team to seek a solution.”

As for this work that now comes full circle – from when she started it as a PhD student, to continuing at Harvey Mudd College to now winning the NSF CAREER award for it here at Illinois CS – the meaningful nature of this path is not lost on Lewis.

“When I moved from Harvey Mudd to UIUC, I started a new career,” she said. “It’s a very different job, and this NSF CAREER Award is a valuable part of that career. It’s great to have a five-year luxury project.

Already, she led a three-day workshop with APSA teachers from Chicago public schools last July, hosted by the Discovery Partners Institute. And Lewis added to his online resources for Java teachers interested in using physical representations in their teaching.

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