Projects Explore Ways to Advance Computing Education

FIE copy 3 Image by Jaelyn Dones
Garima Jain, Justin Lu, Lauren Seavey and Jaelyn Dones pose for a selfie at the Frontiers in Education Conference.

By Brooke Coupal

Three computer science majors can add “academic conference presenter” to their résumés following a recent trip to Uppsala, Sweden.

Justin Lu, who graduated in May, and seniors Jaelyn Dones and Garima Jain presented at the 2022 Frontiers in Education Conference as lead authors of research papers that are set to be published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Xplore digital library.

For months, the students conducted research on topics related to computer science education in the lab of Fred Martin, a computer science professor and Kennedy College of Sciences (KCS) associate dean for teaching, learning and undergraduate studies. They formulated their findings into research papers and submitted those to the four-day international conference.

“It's the first time I've had three research papers accepted with students as lead authors, so it was kind of a remarkable event,” says Martin, who also attended the conference along with information technology senior Lauren Seavey.

Enhancing Computer Science Education

The mission of the conference, founded by IEEE in 1971, is to advance computing and engineering education “to ensure that all students receive the best possible preparation for their future.”

That was exactly Jain’s goal when she started working in Martin’s lab, the Engaging Computing Group. Growing up in India, Jain saw her female peers not pursue careers in STEM due to a lack of representation. She transferred to UMass Lowell during her junior year from J.C. Bose University of Science and Technology, YMCA in India and quickly found herself working with Martin to create a culturally responsive computer science curriculum for middle school students to get them interested in computing.

“One of the goals of the project was to present computer science for all, be it underrepresented minorities or women,” she says.

Jain helped develop a curriculum that took into consideration the students and their culture to better connect them with computer science. Her work was built off previous research that Martin conducted under a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant.

While visiting students at Methuen schools to showcase her computer science curriculum, she realized that they took more of an interest in the materials when they could relate to them.

FIE copy 1 Image by Fred Martin
Jaelyn Dones presents her research on SoarCS, UMass Lowell's summer bridge program for incoming first-year computer science majors.

“They were asking questions and were like, ‘Yeah, we can do this,’” she says. “We could see the spark in their eyes as they learned more about computer science.”

Before Jain presented her work at the conference, a researcher from Finland, Linda Mannila, gave a presentation on exploring gender differences in primary school programming. Both Jain and Martin noticed similarities between her findings and theirs.

“That was exciting because we didn’t know if our findings were common, so the fact that another researcher found the same thing with kids in another country assured me that what we were seeing was something that was really going on,” Martin says.

Lu’s conference presentation focused on how My Reality (MYR), a virtual reality programming environment created by Martin’s lab, impacted students’ spatial skills. 

“Spatial skills are the cognitive ability of someone to mentally transform objects in their own mind,” Lu says. “Studies have shown there’s a huge connection between spatial skills and being successful in STEM disciplines, especially in the engineering and computer science fields.”

Lu worked alongside Seavey, who is a co-author of the research paper, to teach middle and high school students in an online afterschool program how to use code to build 3D scenes in MYR. The participants were given tests at the beginning and end of the program to examine their spatial reasoning ability.

“We found that the people who had more experience with programming already had higher spatial skills than those who didn’t,” Seavey says. “People with less spatial skills showed a greater increase after learning MYR.”

Lu and Seavey got to compare their research with that of University of Cincinnati Prof. Sheryl Sorby, who presented about spatial skills and engineering.

“Dr. Sorby is a well-known researcher on spatial skills, and her work was similar to ours,” Lu says. “It was super interesting to listen to her talk.”

MYR is a programming environment that is also taught to incoming first-year computer science majors at UMass Lowell through the summer bridge program SoarCS. For Dones’ research project, she looked at how students benefited from the program.

She discovered that students who participated in SoarCS in 2020 had a higher retention rate within UMass Lowell and the Department of Computer Science than students who got invited to the program but did not participate.

FIE copy 2 Image by Jaelyn Dones
Computer Science Prof. Fred Martin, center, stands with student members of his lab in Sweden.
“It shows that the program is helping support students as they transition into college,” says Dones, who participated in SoarCS in 2020. “It's networking students and professors together.” 

For Dones, presenting her findings at the conference was a whirlwind experience.

“It was very empowering to know I was at a conference with industry peers who wanted to hear what I had to say,” she says.

Building Connections and Exploring New Places

The students say networking with other researchers and scholars was a benefit of being at the conference.

“That’s what conferences are all about — meeting people like yourself and making new connections,” Martin says.

Jain and Dones made an instant connection with female computer and civil engineering majors from a university in California. They spotted each other while walking out of the conference the first night and decided to get dinner together.

“It was great to be able to talk STEM with them and about the universal struggle of getting women into STEM,” Dones says. 

“We all connected, and we kept saying to each other, ‘Women in tech,’” Jain adds.

Weeks after the conference finished, the women keep in touch via social media.

For Dones, Seavey, Lu and Jain, the trip to Sweden marked their first academic conference and their first time in Europe.

“They were in awe of being in this other country and being in the academic context,” Martin says.

They explored Uppsala and got to visit the Uppsala Castle and the Uppsala Art Museum. Seavey, who traveled to the conference with her parents, also ventured out to Stockholm and Copenhagen.

“While I was over in Sweden, I figured it was a good time to visit another country,” she says of the side trip to Denmark. “We did a lot of walking around and just enjoying the sites.” 

The students all agreed that this trip, which was funded by Martin’s research grants and the KCS Dean’s Office, was one they’ll always cherish.

“This conference gave me the opportunity to present my research, discover the latest trends in my field, gain knowledge from experts and explore a new city,” Jain says. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”