New research explores opportunities to close equity gaps in computer science gateway courses

Addressing “gateways in gateway courses,” specific factors that prevent capable students from succeeding in introductory courses, can pave the way to closing equity gaps for students pursuing an engineering degree .

Crash courses in engineering often act as barriers to students’ success in earning their chosen degrees, leading to disproportionately high attrition rates among students of color, women, college freshmen generation and students who have experienced inequitable financial, educational and social systems.

New studies led by Director of Student Excellence, Engagement and Inclusion at the Baskin School of Engineering Carmen Robinson and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Education Narges Norouzi identify computer assembly, a course mandatory for most UCSC engineering students typically taken in first year, as the main entry route with large and persistent equity gaps. As a growing number of incoming students at UC Santa Cruz choose to study computer science, the new research reveals how motivation and sense of belonging within the engineering community varies among students and is often linked to measures of academic achievement.

“We have students who are super talented, who have these great abilities, but they’re held back in a certain space,” Robinson said. “So how do we solve this problem? How can we ensure that they progress to graduation? »

Years of research and programming

In 2019, Robinson conducted a student experience study, including a survey of all engineering students at Baskin, to investigate factors that influence students’ ability to report and earn an engineering degree. The study included individual interviews, focus groups and institutional data. The survey asked about student demographics, concerns about their daily lives, whether and how much students worked, what support they might receive from family, and what academic preparation they had for taking introductory courses.

“We basically looked at the survey data, specifically pre-college math and coding readiness, as well as science motivation and growth mindset indicators,” Norouzi said. “What we have noticed is a disproportionate pre-college preparation gap between students from different demographic groups. Inspired by the data, we set out to close this readiness gap.

The results led Robinson and Norouzi to establish a summer program to review math and programming concepts for incoming students identified as having varied preparation. The program, called Baskin Engineering Excellence Scholars (BEES) and with Norouzi as the main teacher, took place virtually during the summer of 2020 and 2021, and in 2022 will be held in person for the first time.

The 50 new students in this year’s program will attend programming and math classes, participate in problem-solving sessions, and end their days with team-building activities. They will also be introduced to on-campus resources such as Counseling and psychology services (CAPS) and the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and participate in activities to build trust and a sense of belonging.

A document presented at the IEEE Frontiers in Education 2021 conference details the curriculum and daily schedule for the BEES program, citing data indicating that the program is effective in preparing students for engineering courses. This article analyzed the program’s success in providing students with academic self-competence in programming and math concepts as well as supporting students’ sense of campus belonging, scholarly motivation, and scholarly identity.

BEES students also received targeted first-year course tutoring, mentoring, and counseling that supported their learning experiences throughout their first year at UCSC. To enhance the program’s cohort-based model, UCSC’s Committee on Education Policy approved first-year priority enrollment for BEES students so that they can be enrolled in the same discussion section courses and receive more targeted tutoring from the program.

Gateways and Opportunities in Introductory Courses

Assessing student performance alongside this earlier work, Robinson and Norouzi noticed that computer assembly (CSE 12) was particularly challenging for students. Institutional data showed that all students struggled to complete the course, with pass rates and lower B or better grades for underrepresented students. Beginning in the spring of 2021, researchers worked with CSE 12 instructors and the Institutional research, evaluation and policy studies (IRAPS) to collect data on why students are late.

Pre- and post-course surveys collected data on student science motivation and sense of belonging to determine how these indicators relate to student distrust and engineering attrition. Bi-weekly surveys kept track of how students were learning and progressing through course material to determine if particular topics tended to lead to student failure. Identifying these specific areas can help instructors and mentors give more focused preparation and tutoring to increase student success.

“We want to see if we can identify a gateway topic in the course that contributes to the overall failure,” Norouzi said. “Or if there is a specific set of subjects that, if emphasized more, can improve student grades and pass rates while improving non-academic indicators for students.”

Robinson and Norouzi hope a similar analysis can be done for other introductory engineering courses. Additionally, they want to increase the number of students of color who transfer to UCSC to study engineering and provide more support for their specific challenges through a bridging program tailored to their transition.

By presenting and discussing these articles with the computer science teaching community, Robinson and Norouzi hope to identify “bridges within bridge courses.” They hope to target future interventions to strengthen the community and increase the sense of belonging.

To this end, this work will be presented at the 2022 ACM Conference on International Research in Computer Education (ICER 2022) on Saturday, August 7. The team will also present a workshop session at the 2022 Society for the Advancement of Chicano/Hispanic and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Diversity in STEM conference titled “How to Get the Most Out of Your Transition to a 4-Year Institution and beyond!” to discuss bridging program ideas for transfer students.

“We have our work ahead of us, but there are many ways to help students believe they can succeed,” Robinson said. “I think our teachers are very open to these things, and we do the work we can upstream.”

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