Thursday, August 15, 2013

CS Educator Interview: Cait Sydney Pickens

One really can meet people online though sites like Twitter. That is how I met Cait Sydney Pickens. I look at everyone who follows me on Twitter and saw her name. That lead to her blog (Computing Education a research blog about computer science education) and more about her. She has done some interesting things in teaching and in CS education research. That quickly convinced me I wanted to include her story in my CS educator series. Thankfully she agreed.

How do you describe yourself?

I am a teacher, an open source advocate, a Pythonista, a female coder and engineer, a blogger, an education researcher, a queer woman. I have been (and sometimes still am) an undergraduate CS teaching assistant, a summer middle school teacher, a Michigan State Spartan graduate student, a Software Carpentry teacher. Most recently, I am a full-time researcher at Google with the Computer Science Teaching Fellows program.
The thoughts I'm sharing here come from the combination of all of those experiences and aren't specific to any of the particular institutions where I teach.

You are a PhD student researching computer science education. What does that mean? Are you studying tools, techniques, something else?

Yes, I am a PhD student researching computer science education (CSE). That translates into a few different things: (1) reading a lot of blogs, tweets, research papers, and dissertations about what people are doing in CSE; (2) synthesizing what I am reading into a mental map of the field, (3) identifying what topics have “open questions” or areas that have not been researched, (4) designing, implementing, and evaluating educational interventions in a classroom, (5) communicating my findings to the broader CSE community.
I just finished my second year in a PhD program, so my research focus has not been fully refined yet. I’ve done some heavy reading on topics like integrated engineering education and first-year computer science. As I am developing my identity as a researcher, I am learning that I am most interested in questions about diversity, access, and engagement. How do we broaden the field of CS to include all different types of people? How do we make sure that they stay engaged and feel included? Those questions can be targeted with tools, teaching techniques, classroom environments, really anything. I am keeping my mind open when trying to answer the question of diversity in computing.

How did you get started in computer science in general and researching CS education in particular?

I went to Lake Forest College planning to be a high school math teacher. As part of the mathematics degree program, they require students to take an introductory CS class, and I am so glad they do! I started then with object-oriented programming in Java and I loved it. I just never stopped. I find CS to be the intersection of all the math and logic skills that I happen to be good at and the creative, design, and language skills that I really love.
I first started researching CS education when I was invited by a mentor to teach on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The summer workshop at Porcupine Day School teaches middle-schoolers about the intersection of art, animation, digital storytelling, programming, and computational thinking using Alice. My experience on the Rez in the past two years really shaped my understanding of the current status of CSE in middle school and got me thinking about how to reach and engage all different types of learners.
I have been really lucky in finding people to support me in my desire to do CSE research. I have been able to work on the Rez, be a teaching assistant in a REAL classroom at Michigan State, teach data scientists how to program with Software Carpentry. These teaching experiences have helped guide my development of research interests and questions.

You’ve done some teaching as well in a couple of settings. A Native American reservation for one. What was that like? Are there particular challenges in that environment?

Teaching on the Rez is always a defining life event for me. It teaches me so much about my own privilege, about what a “low floor” for inexperienced learners really means, and how living in poverty heavily impacts student learning. At the same time, I learned about the importance and beauty of human connection. On the Rez, there is a feeling of belonging. In fact, there is a common Lakota phrase Mitakuye oyasin, which translates to “All my relatives” or “We are all related.” My favorite part about teaching at Porcupine Day School is how the students show that sort of Lakota interconnectedness with each other and with their teachers every single day. It’s refreshing and inspiring.

What is your overall teaching philosophy? Project based learning? Flipped classroom? In short, what makes your CS education style “your CS education style?”

I believe in connecting people. I think I have always believed in that, but I especially identify with it after teaching on the Rez. When I am teaching, I try to get students away from computers and gadgets and technology, and instead reflecting about computational thinking and how it impacts their lives. We talk about ideas, problem-solving, the pros and cons of different solutions. I also believe in using computational thinking in unexpected environments (writing poetry, composing music, digital storytelling, dancing, etc). So, I think my approach to teaching focuses on inclusion, interaction, and using what you’ve learned in new environments. That means I end up doing a lot of project-based learning where students are building and creating their own ideas as a community.

How has your research impacted your teaching? And your teaching experience impacted your research?

I think it is pretty obvious at this point how my teaching on the Rez has influenced my desire to develop an inclusive learning environment. As for how research impacts my teaching... Well, I do a very informal assessment called a “minute card” where students write down 1 thing they learned during a lesson and 1 question they still have. I’m always impressed with how much I can learn about my own success as a teacher from analyzing that sort of feedback. As for more formal research - I’m learning that there is a lot of work in education research more generally that studies how engaged (motivated, on-task, included) students are in a classroom. I try to build my own lessons and classrooms around those findings, using their suggestions to build a place where it is totally okay for students to take risks, to be wrong.

How do you measure success for your teaching? For your students?

When I’m teaching on any given day, I use minute cards. That’s mainly because many of my teaching experiences are workshop-based and I can’t really give something like a final exam to measure student learning gain. I especially focus on the questions students still have after a lesson to see if higher-order thinking or metacognitive processes have been engaged during the lesson. If the questions I receive are all low-level, content-definition-based on the minute cards, I informally conclude that my own teaching wasn’t successful and that learning for students was probably not very meaningful.
When I have the chance to teach in a more consistent environment, like when I am a teaching assistant at Michigan State, I have teaching evaluations at the end of a term.
I’m always especially rewarded when students give feedback saying that they felt comfortable, at home, or confident in my classroom. When I teach with Software Carpentry, I like to follow up with workshop participants some time months later to see if the workshop has had any lasting impact on a participant’s research patterns and workflow.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that I forgot to ask?

I just want to emphasize how important it is in my mind that we (as an education community) focus on structuring our classrooms and our research around developing students who are able to solve real-life problems with computers and programming. And not just some students. All students - that means male and female and every other gender that exists, people of all different races and ethnicities, students of all different socio-economic backgrounds, rural and urban environments and everything in between, and so many other factors. We need to stay committed to that major task and not be deterred.

More Cait Sydney on the Internet.

Twitter: @caitsydney
For a full list of interviews in this series please see CS Educator Interviews: The Index

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