By Louise Ann Lyon, PhD | January 28, 2016
Senior Research Associate, ETR
All my family, friends and colleagues know I’m a researcher interested in diversifying STEM. This means that I’m constantly receiving articles from them about all kinds of efforts being made to entice more girls/women and minorities to study or work in STEM fields—computer science in particular, as that has been my focus.
I have fortuitously entered the research world at a time when great attention is being paid to the subject that happens to be my area of research interest. Indeed, many of the articles sent to me address the dismal lack of diversity in computer science fields. Or they point out the ever-growing demand for more skilled software coders. Or they emphasize the fact that improving the first helps the second.
Recently a number of articles have been sent my way that debate the merits of so-called “coding boot camps.” In these increasingly popular settings, students devote intensive hours over a number of weeks learning to write computer code. The cost is significantly less than a four-year college degree would be.
The rise of coding boot camps brings up several important issues. For example, a much higher proportion of women choose the boot camp route over completing a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Why aren’t more women majoring in computer science in college? What are some of the consequences of these choices? What types of jobs do alternative settings such as boot camps prepare students for?
Fortunately, I work at an organization where I can pursue answers to these types of questions. At ETR, we are interested in carrying out research to answer some of the essential “nuts and bolts” questions about bringing greater diversity to computer science learning and career paths.
We are interested in finding out what distinctive learning opportunities are offered by undergraduate programs and boot camps—how are the two similar and different? We would also like to know what kinds of learners are attracted to these different learning opportunities and why. How do the educational foci of these settings align with the needs of the software development industry?
Clearly, each setting offers unique benefits as well as drawbacks. The questions we are asking here feed into a larger current debate about the purpose of higher education in the modern world. The benefits of a computer science degree include mastery of theoretical foundations, practice in critical thinking and the opportunity to build learning over time.
Is this what we desire for our populace in general? Or is higher education meant to be a training ground for the workplace that should learn from the approach of boot camps—practical and intensive hands-on work that results in fast and less expensive job training?
These questions also have social justice implications. Does a bachelor’s degree in computer science lead to higher-paying software engineering jobs? Does coding boot camp training lead to less prestigious and lower-paying coding jobs? If that’s the case, we must ask whether, in our push to diversify computing, underrepresented groups are being relegated to training that only prepares them for relatively low-paying, low-status jobs.
Finding answers to these questions requires a good, hard look at both training grounds and the industry they are feeding. Interviews with students moving into the workplace both at the end of their training and at the start of their jobs will tell us what students are learning and how that translates into the job market. Review of curricula and interviews with instructors can clarify the strengths of different types of settings. And corresponding interviews with industry hiring managers would help illuminate what job skills companies are looking for as well as the successes of employees hired with a variety of training.
Besides looking at skills and training, we also need to understand why women choose one training over another. Talking with women in both settings would help us better understand the pathways that women take to technical jobs and the reasons for their choices.
We at ETR hope to answer these questions in order to begin to untangle the who, what and why of job training and diversity in technology.
Louise Ann Lyon, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. She brings industry experience in the software engineering workplace together with a research background, focusing on diversifying technology at postsecondary institutions and in the workplace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.