Amber Settle: Promoting diversity in computer science

Amber Settle
Amber Settle is a professor of computer science education and theory in DePaul's College of Computing and Digital Media. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
Since 1996, Amber Settle has shared her knowledge of computing with DePaul's campus community. Now a professor of computer science education and theory in the College of Computing and Digital Media, Settle strives to expand the minds of her students and support minority groups in the field of computer science.

What is computer science education and what do you love about it?

Computer science education is the study of how people learn computer science and how to effectively teach people about computer science, including programming and other related subjects.

It's important to understand what is effective in terms of teaching. Teaching is a big part of our roles at DePaul. Studying computing education helps me understand how to better accomplish that main part of my job. It's nice to know when I'm conducting my research, I'm also doing something beneficial for my time in the classroom.

How has the field of computer science education evolved over the last 10 years?

This field used to be entirely comprised of people like me - people who completed a Ph.D. in some other sub-discipline of computer science, then became interested in teaching and switched to the education side. Now, we increasingly see more people doing their graduate work in computer science education - studying how people learn, how to teach them computer science, and in what sequence these subjects and courses should be taught. More people are becoming specialized in the education aspect from the get-go, which I believe is a sign the field is becoming more mature.

What are some of the biggest challenges in computer science education?

In general, there are some things we know about how to teach programming -worked examples are helpful; students need to have hands-on activities to practice; and cognitive load, or how much we try to have them keep in their heads at one time, is something we have to  manage.

However, we don't know everything or have the answers on how to jump certain hurdles. There's so much more to understand about how people learn a task like programming. Getting people to learn can be a difficult process and programming is not an easy thing to do. When you're trying to teach someone something that's not easy and requires a lot of time to master, that can be a real challenge. That's why researching computer science education, learning about how people learn, is so vital.

What is it like to be a woman in the technological sciences?

It has been difficult at times - women are vastly underrepresented in computer science. When you represent a minority of any form you tend to become the standard for that group. That certainly puts more pressure on you both as an individual and a scientist. Luckily, DePaul has been extremely supportive.

However, the lack of women in computing is something my colleagues and I in the education community recognize and are working to change.

Do you try to break those trends in your classroom?

Yes definitely, and even in my research projects. A colleague and I have a linked-courses-learning community focused on under-represented groups in computer science, specifically men of color and all women.

We developed the learning community to provide these students with more support and give them a space to look around and see others who look like themselves. For example, it can be difficult to be in a room, especially in a learning environment, and look around to see you're the only woman there. It's an experience I have had numerous times throughout my time in academia. Our learning community aims to squash that feeling. We hope our students see they aren't alone and can build a support system and learn with and from one another.