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Innovative Approach to Teaching Computer Science Attracts National Science Foundation Research Grant

SMU Center of Creative Computation, Bryn Mawr College and two high schools collaborate to engage and retain computer science students

After waiting six long months, Ira Greenberg found good news in his inbox: The director of SMU’s Center of Creative Computation received confirmation that the National Science Foundation (NSF) had accepted his proposal to advance new ways of teaching introductory computer science to high school and university students. Greenberg and colleagues from four different schools will use the three-year, $500,000 grant to expand on methods that integrate active creativity and computer coding, an approach that has already boosted retention past that typically found in more traditional computer science classes. In addition, the group will develop ways to measure teaching effectiveness, hold workshops in various cities and build collaboration within the country’s computer science and creative computing community.

The project, headquartered at the Center of Creative Computation at Meadows School of the Arts, includes three additional partners: Bryn Mawr College Computer Science Department; John Martin High School, a public high school in Arlington, Texas; and Sidwell Friends School, a private high school in Washington, D.C. (best known as the elementary school attended by President Barack Obama’s daughters).

All four campuses will employ identical artistic and creative pedagogy to teach introductory computer science courses to students. Greenberg, a self-taught computer coding expert trained in traditional studio art, says that students learning with the new methods are not only engaged, they’re motivated -- and in some cases, relieved.

“Some have had unsuccessful experiences with computer science in high school,” says Greenberg. “Classes were really dry, with no computers in the room and professors lecturing at the blackboard, teaching all theory with no actual programming going on.

“Our approach is much more contextually relevant. Students are creating stuff, building things they’re interested in. Everybody is working with their laptops, literally coding throughout the class, trying all the examples. They’re making art, expressing themselves creatively and aesthetically while learning the principles.”

One of the group’s goals is for other computer science teachers and professors in the country to adopt the group’s creative approach to computer science.

“Our data shows a lot of success in terms of retention,” says Greenberg, who in addition to teaching at Meadows also teaches at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering in the Computer Science and Engineering department. “We see that students trained with these methods want to continue in their major, take more classes, and do more programming outside of class than what was typically done in traditional computer science classes. We’re attracting more women. The reason students are more engaged in programming and computer science is because they’re enjoying it.”

With the workshops, and with communication with computer science-teaching colleagues at other institutions, the group is working toward having the course adopted and formally assessed at a dozen participating colleges, universities and high schools across the country.

The grant, the second one awarded to Greenberg from the NSF within five years, was selected out of a pool of 373 proposals; of those submitted, only 8.04 percent were accepted.  Regarding the second NSF grant, Greenberg says the SMU Center of Creative Computation is at the heart of it all.

“The grant really reflects the spirit of the Center,” he says. “The Center of Creative Computation does a lot of things, but in terms of pedagogy, our contribution is new, innovative ways of teaching, across disciplines.”

About the Center of Creative Computation

The Center of Creative Computation is an interdisciplinary research and teaching center housed at the Meadows School of the Arts, exploring computation as a universal generative medium, integrating creative development, quantitative analysis and interdisciplinary synthesis. The Center offers both a minor and major in Creative Computing, combining core coursework from the Meadows School of the Arts and the Lyle School of Engineering. The Center sponsors student and faculty fellowships, workshops and lectures and facilitates interdisciplinary creative development and research. Examples of projects include hardware and software development, digital media/arts production, visualization, interactive performance, intermedia practice, digital humanities and pedagogical development, among others. 

Read more about the Center of Creative Computation.

Read more about Ira Greenberg, director of SMU Center of Creative Computation.

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