comp-sci-photo-80By Tina Hilding, College of Engineering and Architecture

PULLMAN, Wash. – The isolation of problem solving for beginning computer science students can cause them to flounder and fail. It also doesn’t reflect the teamwork that goes on in the computing profession.

A Facebook-style public forum is being pioneered at Washington State University to improve collaboration and learning.

A team co-led by Chris Hundhausen, a professor in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has received a three-year National Science Foundation grant to develop a social media platform for students in introductory computer science courses. The aim is to allow students to share small pieces of computer code and help each other learn.

The researchers also will develop guidelines and best practices to help instructors use social programming assignments in their classes. The team intends to expand application to other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses as well.

Problem solving, but not in a vacuum

In early computer courses, the point is for students to learn and struggle with the skill of problem solving, Hundhausen said. Often, though, they sit alone, floundering in a computer lab. They develop inaccurate assessments of themselves as failures. They drop out of computer science, a tough program known for its low retention rate.

“We are trying to bring problem solving into a public forum and build a community,’’ he said. “This is important because it helps students overcome their social isolation, lets them into their peers’ problem-solving activities and brings them together with others who share their struggles.’’

The platform developed by Hundhausen and graduate student Adam Carter also makes sense since, according to a recent study, 89 percent of young adults use social media daily.

“I think it’s a good fit for college students,’’ Hundhausen said.

Testing for other schools, courses

The researchers have begun testing the platform in the introductory computer science course at WSU. They also will compare data from Pacific University, a small liberal arts college in Oregon, and Mesa Community College in Arizona to see how providing social support might work in different educational environments.

Hundhausen hopes to eventually try similar techniques in other science and math classes.

“This project will help us understand how learning and participation proceed in a social problem-solving environment, as well as its impact on student success,’’ he said.

“I am especially thrilled to see how a perennial computer science problem can be approached using well-proven learning theories,’’ said Olusola (Sola) Adesope, assistant professor in the College of Education and co-principal investigator. He brings knowledge of educational theories and learning sciences to the project.

“We are trying to present computer science students with vicarious experiences that afford them unique opportunities to assess their programming knowledge relative to others,” he said. “We believe this approach will promote self-efficacy and persistence and lead to retention in STEM fields.”