Attracting a more diverse student body is also often a motivation for pursuing interdisciplinary CS education, with
demonstrated success [ 2]. We observe that constructivist approaches also align well with the goal of diversifying the computing classroom. Giving students ownership over the learning
activity lets them leverage the knowledge they already possess
and illuminates the students’ background to the instructor. This
increases the instructor’s ability to respond to those varying
levels of preexisting knowledge as the instruction is underway.
Turning to pedagogical approaches that are designed to work
with rather than attempt to alleviate or eliminate student differences is not only effective but avoids implicitly communicating
to some students that they are not appropriately equipped for
a CS classroom.
At the beginning of this century, Ben-Ari wrote: “The author’s analysis of constructivism has led him to conclude that
the epistemology of computer science is significantly different
than that of, say, physics. Nevertheless, the basic tenet of the
theory—that knowledge is constructed by the student—
applies to computer science...” [ 5] As computer science education
broadens its scope and applicability, teachers from many disciplines, driven by pedagogical needs, are rediscovering Ben-Ari’s
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as oral-proficiency-oriented foreign language pedagogy, where
learners focus on participating in communicative situations
rather than mastering grammar or vocabulary, to teach programming in a task-oriented manner that prioritizes learners’
humanistic research goals.
Some of the same types of media computation work for
which Guzdial advocates have also been made the content of
entire academic programs, such as the interdisciplinary Music Technology degree at University of Massachusetts Lowell
[ 32]. Offering a cohesive degree of this type requires strong
cross-disciplinary integration as the program merges disciplines such as audio engineering and music/media production
with computer science and information technology. Walzer
describes how a cognitive apprenticeship model and situated
learning are central to effectively carrying out this integration.
Incorporating relevant theory and practice from the multiple
disciplines is effectively achieved using a multidisciplinary apprenticeship model in a lab-based classroom setting; this type
of tiered-learning approach can only be achieved if built into
the structure of the program itself.
Often the different forms of initiatives we have discussed
can productively overlap. The Computer Science department
at Union College has reworked its introductory course into a
set of theme-based introductory course options designed to incorporate contextualized computing and draw connections to
disciplines outside of computer science; themes include robotics, game development, artificial intelligence, and engineering
applications [ 2]. The department has also worked closely with
faculty from other disciplines such as astronomy, biology, economics, and English, to help them incorporate computing into
their courses [ 3]. For example, a module was added to a Personal Finance course to use Monte Carlo simulation to evaluate
approaches to retirement planning while faculty and students
from the English department developed a software tool that lets
readers browse William Blake’s art and poetry through non-lin-ear reading methods. These collaborations with faculty across
Union College directly fed back into the CS department in the
form of revised intermediate level courses that do not require
data structures as a prerequisite and are suitable for both majors and non-majors.
There are solid theoretical reasons why the observed paired
adoption of interdisciplinary computing and a constructivist
epistemology for computing education would take place. Constructivist approaches are driven by an awareness that students
learn better when they see the need for what they are learning
[ 30]. As discussed above, this appeal to student motivation is
also one of the major drivers of increased interdisciplinary CS
education [ 26]. Constructivism suggests we seek circumstances
for learning that are experiential, active, collaborative, and that
also develop problem-solving skills [ 23]. Interdisciplinary content is a rich source for robust, real problems that invite experiential and collaborative problem solving.