To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times for computer science (CS).
On the one hand, current CS research produces innovations with near-term societal impact with startling frequency, including: blockchain-based data storage, virtual currencies, autonomous vehicles, deep learning, quantum computing, and virtual/augmented reality. Some innovations can "cross the chasm" from research idea to mass market adoption within the length of a single undergraduate degree program. Due in part to this velocity of innovation, the World Economic Forum estimates that more than 65% of current students will work in jobs that don't exist today. According to the Computing Research Association, the number of undergraduate CS majors has tripled since 2006 and is expected to grow further.
On the other hand, U.S. high school students now rank near the bottom among 35 industrialized nations in math preparation. Retention is poor: fewer than 40% of students who enter college with the intention of majoring in a STEM field such as CS actually complete the degree. Diversity is actually decreasing: female participation in CS has declined to 18% from a peak of 37% in the mid-1980's. Women are less likely to join and more likely to leave computing majors than men. In 2017, only one in five of those taking the Advanced Placement exam in computer science were underrepresented minorities. Silicon Valley, the epicenter for CS innovation, suffers from a culture of entrenched and widespread sexual harrassment.
This combination of issues creates daunting challenges for undergradute computer science degree programs. In response to increased demand, programs have increased class sizes, instituted academic barriers to entry, and reduced some course offerings and faculty activities. For example, class sizes approaching 1000 students in lower level courses now occur at UC Berkeley and other prominent computer science programs. Unfortunately, such programmatic responses can negatively impact on engagement, diversity and retention.
Some students seek alternatives to an undergraduate degree program to acquire CS skills, such as three to six month coding bootcamps. However, such short-term educational programs cannot provide students with the analytical depth needed to engage with the leading edge of innovation.
In response to the velocity of innovation, some students turn away from their university's slow moving curriculum and toward online platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX, which can quickly implement specializations in emergent disciplines such as big data, data science, and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, students are typically left to their own devices to select appropriate, high quality "extracurricular curriculum".
Recent approaches to addressing diversity in CS include BRAID and non-profit organizations such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code. These approaches show great promise for their target demographic, but do not necessarily impact on overall engagement and retention.
We believe that computer science must develop new and better ways to improve engagement (i.e. create wider interest in pursuing CS), retention (i.e. create mechanisms to improve the chance that students, once pursuing a CS undergraduate degree, will complete it), and diversity (i.e. create ways to improve engagement and retention for women and underrepresented minorities).
The fundamental goal of the RadGrad Project is to provide students, faculty, and advisors with an alternative perspective on the undergraduate degree program---which traditionally boils down to a single kind of activity (coursework) and a single metric for success (grade point average). Our alternative perspective is called the Degree Experience, and it gives first class status to both curricular activities (courses) and extracurricular activities (discipline-oriented events, activities, clubs, etc.) To establish the first class status of extracurricular activities, the Degree Experience perspective replaces GPA as the single metric for success with a three component metric called ICE that assesses student development with respect to Innovation, Competency, and Experience. Each student's Degree Experience also includes a representation of their disciplinary interests and career goals that helps them assess the relevance of potential curricular and extracurricular activities. Finally, the Degree Experience perspective is voluntary. It complements but does not change any existing undergraduate degree requirements of a university.
Over the past two years, we have developed this idea into a conceptual framework called Degree Experience Plans (DEP) and a supporting technology platform called RadGrad. The design of DEP/RadGrad is influenced by research on diversity and retention and two educational research theories: Individualized Learning Plans (ILP) and Communities of Practice (CoP). ILPs help students connect their current studies to their future career goals. CoP identifies the importance of practitioner networks for both formal and informal learning. Based upon this prior research, and our pilot use of DEP/RadGrad with a small set of undergraduate students, we hypothesize that student populations adopting the Degree Experience perspective will show increased levels of engagement, retention, and diversity.
We ultimately believe DEP/RadGrad can be used to improve a variety of STEM degree programs. However, at this time we focus on computer science and computer engineering programs.