SPOTLIGHT: AN RPP APPROACH TO COMPUTER SCIENCE WORK

Stacey Sexton and Rebecca Zarch | SageFox Consulting; Leigh Ann DeLyser | CSforALL

What happens in a field where practitioners are finding and fixing problems faster than the researchers know they exist? Hint – it’s why so many technology companies hire PhDs to work alongside their engineers. 

In many fields, the day to day challenges are addressed by people we could label as practitioners. They are deeply embedded in the practice of the discipline – producing deliverables, solving challenges, and executing strategies. In recent years, a more data-driven approach to outcomes and improvement has emerged, but most professionals are still far from being trained to design and execute a research study.

Researchers, in turn, have a deep knowledge in one or more methods of exploring important questions. This is a significant difference from simple problem solving, as it often involves determining if an outcome happens by chance or is a result of (or correlated to) a particular intervention or change in practice. In education, as in many fields, these two approaches to examining problems can be powerful when combined. 

Computer Science (CS) is one of those fields that changes more rapidly than academics can keep up. CS education is outpacing the research needed to inform it at the K-12 level, as the computing field seeks to instill the skills and the mindsets of computing into primary and secondary grades students. For these reasons, critical partnerships between industry and CS faculty/teachers are not new. Here, we argue that a research-practice partnership (RPP) approach to CS work can be particularly powerful. We also introduce the RPPforCS community, which forms a macro RPP uniting and facilitating learning among Computer Science and Education researchers, scholars, and practitioners who are engaging in RPPs.

Why Computer Science RPPs?

The approaches and curricular materials used to teach computer science and computational thinking to students are being freshly developed all the time, and as the opportunities to learn these fields are moving from the realm of elective courses to graduation requirements, more diverse kinds of learners within particular cultural settings across the country and with particular educational needs must be taught. RPPs are particularly suitable for addressing the challenges that come with this rapid development, due to their long-term, trusting partnerships between researchers and practitioners and their focus on actual problems of practice. An RPP approach to CS work holds promise for shortening the timeline of development and iteration, increasing the fidelity of implementation, and ensuring that research is aligned with the real needs of practitioners. Moreover, the more equitable power share in an RPP one which honors the expertise of practitioners and works to ameliorate structural power differentials supports the centering of the voices of CS teachers and other practitioners like guidance counselors, special education teachers, teachers of other subjects, principals, and administrators as new approaches are developed.

Recognizing this, the National Science Foundation began funding a series of CS education research projects through the Computer Science for All: Research Practice Partnership program (NSF 17-525, 18-537) two and a half years ago. The program focuses on researcher-practitioner partnerships as a model to foster the research and development needed to bring Computer Science and Computational Thinking (CT) to all primary and secondary schools.

The 70+ CS for All: RPP projects that have since been funded share dual objectives of broadening participation in computing and conducting research in CS education. From there, they differ widely in their foci: Some seek to scale teacher professional development widely, some are investing in culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, while yet others may be conducting research on a specific learning tool. The findings from the RPP projects have the potential to improve the CS education knowledge base with practical findings about teaching, learning, and scaling CS.

Why a Community of Computer Science RPPs?

RPPforCS is a community for the RPP projects funded under NSF’s CS for All: RPP program. Together, SageFox Consulting Group, CSforALL, and CSEdresearch.org submitted a proposal to form and convene this community to provide a venue to study, understand, and report on the project efforts. The group was also interested in establishing a participant-driven, multi-site research agenda for the CSforAll: RPP program to facilitate the understanding of the efficacy of the RPP model and the impact on CS/CT education. To that end, RPPforCS investigates the following research questions:

  1. What are the RPP-specific activities and partnership characteristics that shape the extent to which/ways in which RPPs meet their goals for quality CS education?
  2. How do different RPPs define and design around different indicators of healthy RPPs and how do they evolve over time?
  3. How do RPPs measure their effectiveness at affecting CS education and broadening participation?
  4. What is the influence of RPPforCS on the grant-funded community and broader CS education community? 

In addition to pursuing this research agenda to gain insights about the potential of RPPs to inform and improve the CS field, we also seek to support the different RPP projects in the community. These projects include a diverse group of CS education researchers and practitioners across the nation, some of which started in their grant funding without an existing partnership at the start of their participation. For newly formed and emerging partnerships, we help connect them to resources in both the RPP and CS research domains, and have created a partnership “Health Assessment” tool based off of the initial framework developed by Henrick, et al. These projects have indicated that the tool was useful in early partnership conversations as shared language and trust was being developed. We are also in the position of knowing what’s happening in the community of funded projects and to facilitate data collection, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination across the program, and have connected to experts in the field of CS and RPPs to help scale and transfer successful practices among the communities. The goal is to leverage that knowledge to facilitate cross project collaborations and learning.

RPPforCS itself also seeks to use the model of an RPP to build the capacity of the broader community of evaluators and researchers who receive funding from the NSF program, functioning as a sort of macro RPP uniting all the smaller RPP projects of the NSF program. SageFox has been conducting research and evaluation for nearly two decades with an emphasis on STEM education programs. For the last ten years, CS education has been a cornerstone of our work. CSforALL connects the RPPforCS research community to its ongoing community work and the larger CS education community. CSforALL’s membership of over 450 organizations include curriculum authors and program providers, researchers, and local education agencies, including school districts, charter networks, and state departments of education. CSEdResearch.org provides a gateway to research and evaluation instruments for computer science education and leads the effort to advance assessment within the K-12 Computer Science field. Additionally, they provide a dissemination venue for CS for All: RPP projects.

The RPPforCS team also strives to partner with its community in several ways. One, we aim to know our community deeply in order to best promote cross-community collaboration. This includes knowing what each project aims to accomplish, the research questions, characteristics of the partnerships, and key members of each project. We also seek to involve the community in our research and community building activities. We invite community input on our research agenda and have members lead community calls and work with others on conference panels and papers. The RPPforCS community is sharing resources and creating new knowledge that is expanding the field of both CS education and RPPs. We have created internal mechanisms for sharing across projects through research-practice briefs, which are designed to provide examples of how a specific tool is being used or topic being explored by several of the projects in the community. Theme studies go further by trying to generalize the learning about RPPs engaged in CS education across our projects. We convene monthly community calls that focus around a topical area of interest to the community, produce a monthly newsletter with updates from our project and from the community, and have recently begun to convene mini-meetups of our community at relevant events, meetings, and conferences. The most impactful community building activity that we do is a half day meetup co-located with the RESPECT and SIGCSE conferences. These opportunities for face-to-face connection and cross-project sharing are invaluable to realizing the community-building and research goals of our project. At our third annual meet up in early March four pre-conference workshops were organized by community members to delve deeper into shared areas of CS education interest. Nearly 60 people attended these workshops despite moving to a virtual platform for health safety.

Challenges

As with any community, there are also challenges to sustaining cohesive group activity. As we know, RPPs take time to develop and mature. The RPPforCS project team was so excited to be funded and had so many ideas about how to engage the projects that we actually overwhelmed many of our partners at first. Initially, we hadn’t taken the time to build up the trust or mutual understanding of purpose that is required to do this type of work. In the iterative nature of an RPP, we then decided to take a step back with our community and technical support activities. The assumption we had at the beginning was that RPP projects would want to deeply engage with us around every data-collection and community participation opportunity. In point of fact, these are busy research projects in their own right, so naturally their time commitments are a bit over subscribed and in many cases faced their own start up challenges delaying the readiness for participation in a community. Our engagement activities now engage participants around themes related to RPP and/or CS education, providing different opportunities for engaging smaller subsets of the community throughout the year.

In conclusion

Through the RPPforCS community, the team hopes to build the capacity of funded CS RPP projects to engage in partnership work to the end of supporting the nascent CS education research community. We believe that RPPs are a potentially powerful method through which to move the CS field forward and bring quality, evidence-based CS education to all students.

 

Stacey Sexton is Research Assistant at SageFox Consulting; Rebecca Zarch is Director of SageFox Consulting; and Leigh Ann DeLyser is Executive Director of CSforALL.

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |  nnerpp.rice.edu