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A Gift for Teaching, and a Commitment to Diversity in Computer Science

Bringing change to a field that is largely white

Fran Trees

 

In the 45 years since Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer in a garage and Bill Gates started Microsoft, computer science has changed the world.

But one constant remains – the field nationwide is still predominantly white and male.

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Fran Trees, an award-winning Rutgers teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, School of Arts and Sciences, works to address that problem at its source—the teaching and the courses students have access to during their formative years.

“The diversity in computer science is poor, and that is putting it mildly,” Trees said. “And part of the reason is that these privileged skills were not available to many students. Their school districts did not offer them.”

Fran TreesFran TreesToward this end, Trees has teamed up with the Center for Effective School Practices (CESP), a unit of the Graduate School of Education that is led by research professor Cindy Blitz and dedicated to bringing the latest research on teaching into classrooms. With the center acting as principal investigator on federal grants, Trees helps design and execute the projects, working directly with teachers in the districts.

Their latest project, Extending the CS Pipeline: Enhancing Rigor and Relevance in Middle School CS, is a five-year, multimillion-dollar project funded through the U.S. Department of Education to provide technical assistance and support to educators from 38 schools across New Jersey, many of them in struggling districts.

“These grants allow us to go into schools that don't have a lot of computer science,” said Trees. “We want to take what curriculum they do have and help them expand it.”

Only 67 percent of all public high schools in New Jersey teach a foundational course in computer science, according to Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to widening access to computer science in schools.

And, nationally, just 47 percent of Black students attend schools with computer science courses compared to 58 percent of white students, a Google study showed.

In another sign of the lack of the diversity, girls account for only 22 percent of historic participation in AP computer science, and students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups only 13 percent, Code.org found.

The diversity in computer science is poor, and that is putting it mildly.

—Fran Trees

The middle school initiative follows a prior project in 2018 when Trees and Thu Nguyen, who is now Dean for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, worked with CESP to expand access to computer science at the high school level through the Computer Science for All program started under the Obama administration and funded through the National Science Foundation.

Thu NguyenThu Nguyen"Working with high school teachers and administrators together with Professor Trees and CESP was both rewarding and a tremendous learning experience for me," Nguyen says. "I am really excited to see the new project extending into middle schools because research has shown that we must make computer science more available and accessible earlier in K-12 if we hope to increase diversity in the field."

Both projects aim to guide teachers in developing curriculum that engages students from diverse backgrounds and to build support by involving school principals, department heads and other administrators.

“We want the teachers to be actively engaged and enthusiastic and have a vision,” Trees said. “Once you have the teachers feeling engaged you have more of a chance of sustaining that program, and that’s why we want to involve the administrators."

Trees, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick professor for 10 years, serves as Director of Undergraduate Introductory Instruction in the computer science department. Her courses are frequently packed with decidedly non-techie students with a wide range of majors.

“I have had kids come in saying ‘I am not a math person, I am not going to do well,” Trees said. “That’s what’s going on, and that’s the mentality we have to change.”

Trees received a 2019 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education, SAS’s highest honor for teaching. She is also a longtime member and leader in the national Computer Science Teachers Association. Trees has led professional development sessions that drew computer teachers from across New Jersey to Busch campus every summer prior to the pandemic.

“I had a student once tell me that teaching isn’t just a profession for me, it’s a vocation,” Trees said. “And that’s it. It’s not a job to me, it’s part of my life.”

 

 

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