Georgia Tech Wins $2 Million in NSF Grants to Improve Computer Science Education

Highly Selective Grants Will Assist Nation’s High Schools

The Georgia Institute of Technology has been awarded two highly selective National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling $2 million. The awards, designated for the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and the College of Computing, will fund two projects intended to transform how students learn computer science in American high schools. 

Brian Magerko
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Brian Magerko, assistant professor of digital media

EarSketch, a project in Ivan Allen College, is designed to encourage Atlanta’s African-American high schoolers to study computer science. The program will allow students to remix hip hop music by writing computer code. EarSketch is based on research by Georgia Tech that shows the relationship between gaming and an eventual interest in computer science is not as strong as may have been previously assumed, especially for minorities.

“Traditional approaches to teaching computer science are dismal in engaging non-white male students, and the numbers for African-American males are relatively low compared to other ethnic groups,” said Brian Magerko, assistant professor of digital media in the IAC School of Literature, Communication and Culture. Magerko, the principal investigator on the project, is working with co-investigator Jason Freeman, an assistant professor in the School of Music in the College of Architecture. 

“We believe that by leveraging the collaborative nature of remix composition and musically oriented computer programming, EarSketch may provide a successful alternative to the cultural issues that computer games have in the engagement of minorities,” said Magerko.

EarSketch will teach students how to use a digital audio workstation and to control musical loops and beats by writing small bits of programming code. The project involves collaboration with Mike Reilly from Lanier High School, where the software and curriculum will be piloted in 2014.  

The College of Computing’s $1 million grant will be used to address a different issue: a significant shortage of high school computer science teachers in the United States. According to the College Board, there are only 2,000 computer science teachers at the Advanced Placement (AP) level among the nation’s 25,000 high schools. NSF has a goal of having 10,000 high school computer science teachers in 10,000 U.S. schools by the year 2015.

Mark Guzdial, a professor in the college’s School of Interactive Computing, and Barbara Ericson, director of Computing Outreach, will oversee a three-year project that will investigate better ways to train computing teachers. Guzdial and Ericson are focused on creating new online media, allowing teachers to learn at their own pace rather than using a remote classroom model.

"The biggest challenge is learning computer science from a distance," said Guzdial. "Most training tools currently used—such as online classes that require teachers to program code on their own with little or no help—are ineffective. It's too hard for them. We're trying to find a middle ground that will work with measurable learning and helping teachers succeed."

For more information on the initiative, click here.  

Both projects are part of the NSF’s Computing Ed for 21st Century program, which aims to increase the number of students who plan to major in computing. According to the NSF, interest among college freshmen has declined overall by 70 percent in the last decade.