Media Computation at Georgia Tech (Case Study 1)

Attracting Students through an Engaging Introductory Computing Curriculum

The Media Computation approach to teaching introductory computing developed at Georgia Tech is being effectively implemented now at over a dozen institutions. The two-course sequence aims to make computing more attractive to a wider range of students, especially women, by focusing on computing in an interesting context that is relevant to students' everyday lives. The purpose in developing the course was to solve problems that, in studies, were shown to drive away students from computer science, by:

  • making course content relevant to non-CS majors
  • emphasizing creative opportunities in computing
  • fostering a positive social climate in the class

Like traditional introductory courses, the two-course sequence introduces computing concepts and data structures in a context of creating and manipulating media. For example, in Introduction to Media Computation, students learn about loops by creating picture negatives or reversing sounds, learn about conditionals by implementing redeye removal and edge detection, and learn about string processing by writing programs that pull information out of web pages. In Representing Structure and Behavior, students experience linked lists, trees, stacks, and queues by creating animations through continuous and discrete event simulations.

Multi-year evaluation results of the Media Computation approach have been encouraging:

  • Retention has improved dramatically, from a 72% success rate (earning an A, B, or C) to an 85-90% success rate in both courses. The introductory course is about 300 students per semester and has a 51% female population. The second course was 75% female in its first offering.
  • Women in the media computation course are more likely to report that the course is relevant to their lives than are women in the traditional first course.
  • Women report finding the course to be creative, with a rich social context supported by an online environment for sharing media.
  • The course changes students' perceptions of computing and computer scientists.
  • Comparable effects on retention and attitudes toward computer science also were shown at Gainesville College (a two-year public college in northern Georgia).

A challenge to securing faculty adoption of the sequence is that its goal is not to produce software developers. Even in courses explicitly for non-CS majors, many computing faculty want to emphasize standards for good programming rather than more domain-specific computing skills or more general concepts of computer science. However, students report that many of their learning experiences are powerful for helping them think about what computing can provide in their domains.

A key element in the success of the first course is making assignments open-ended and providing an online web space for students to share their media. Most adopting schools have used assignments like the collage assignment, which allows students to use their own media in their own designs. Adopters who have then provided students with a place to share their collages (as well as other images, sounds, and movies) have had similar outcomes to those of Georgia Tech. Adopters who use open-ended assignments but don't provide a place to share the media have not always seen the same improvements in retention.


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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon