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Making K-12 Outreach Really Count

In the face of the continuing computer science enrollment crisis more and more universities and colleges are doing outreach to middle and high schools. Post-secondary institutions know that in order to get more students into their classes they have to reach out to K-12 teachers and students, but how much value do they really place on the work of the faculty and staff who are running their outreach programs?

Last Thursday and Friday CSTA and SIGCSE co-hosted a workshop for colleges and universities who are doing or thinking of doing what we call "roadshows." These institutions are sending faculty and students (graduate and undergraduate) into middle and high schools to do presentations about computer science, informatics, and information technology. Their goal is to provide students with information about computing as a discipline and a career option and to provide special encouragement to students who are traditionally under-represented in the discipline.

The workshop, hosted by Google at their Mountain View campus, was, to put it bluntly, amazing. Faculty and staff from 36 institutions (large and small) came from across the country to share their expertise and resources. Some of the participants were from schools with long-standing, high-quality outreach programs (such as Carnegie Mellon, Indiana University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and some were just starting out. The workshop addressed key issues for the "newbies" as well as the concerns of more mature programs with regard to maintaining and sustaining outreach programs over time.

But, as is often the case with these kinds of workshops, some of the most enlightening discussions took place outside the regularly-scheduled events. For me, the most engaging centered on the question of how much value universities really place on this kind of outreach work.

As we were transitioning from one session to another, I happened to comment on two very different experiences I had had regarding the letter of support we required from the participants' Deans or Department Chairs. One Dean called me personally to say that, although her institution had virtually no money to support the outreach program, she saw it as exceedingly valuable and wanted to make sure that the applicant from her school would be able to attend. She made it very clear how much she respected and valued both the work being done and the person doing it. Another Dean sent me a letter that was so grudging in its support, I wondered how his faculty member actually managed to keep the program alive. Both of these faculty members were selected to participate in the workshop.

My off-the cuff story started the ball rolling and many of the participants noted that although their institutions want and need them to do outreach, they really don't value it in all the ways that count for university faculty. As one participant noted "It doesn't count for tenure, it doesn't help you publish technical articles, it doesn't count for service work, and it doesn't bring in the big money grants. And the rest of the faculty do not respect the work that we are doing."

When you consider that many of these outreach programs are scraping by on soft money or even no money, it is simply amazing that they are managing to do the work they do. College and university computer science and informatics programs need to move into this century. They need to realize that these kinds of outreach programs are critical to addressing the enrollment crisis and they need to recognize the folks who are doing it in the concrete ways that really count.

Comments

Thanks for the article, it was a very interesting read. This kind of outreach really is critical to getting students interested in computer sciences. Like you said, some school programs really need to get in touch and understand how important these outreach and development programs can be.

I was fortunate enough to attend this workshop and would like to thank all who made it possible, esp. Chris Stephenson (I am ready for the band :-), CSTA, SIGCSE and our host, Google. Visibility and correcting misconceptions are two crucial steps towards helping with pipeline issues in computing education.

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