Many researchers have searched for the most effective ways to introduce computer science to students as young as kindergartners. But only recently has the field examined whether these techniques are well suited for students of all backgrounds, a crucial step forward in reducing the considerable gender and racial gaps that remain in technology and other computing fields.
With her advisor, Associate Professor Diana Franklin, Jean Salac has developed and researched strategies such as TIPP&SEE that combine introductory programming languages and reading comprehension approaches to build computational literacy in students as young as 9. Their studies found that TIPP&SEE produced better student performance and project completion, while also narrowing achievement gaps. The work received a Best Paper award at the 2020 International Computing Education Research (ICER) conference, the most prestigious ACM conference on computer science education research.
Currently, Salac is exploring how diagrams in course materials can support elementary computing education and student learning. Like most of her work with Franklin’s CANON Lab, it draws equally from principles in CS, education, design, and psychology, reflecting her broadening views on research.
“I have always been interested in using my research to support people of historically marginalized backgrounds in computing, but my understanding of and my approaches to the problems have evolved,” Salac said. “When I first started, I was naively enamored by new technology and technosolutionistic in my approach. In my PhD, I have learned to think more critically about the research problems that interest me and reflect on my approaches more deeply. My work, by its very nature, has to account for the complexity of humanity from the individual to the societal level. I've become more of an interdisciplinary researcher throughout my PhD.”
Beyond her research, Salac has also been a very active member of the UChicago CS and Physical Sciences Division communities, earning the Graduate Student Leadership Recognition Award, leading the Graduate Women in Computer Science (GWiCS) organization, and working with the Transcending Boundaries Research Symposium, and the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT). For incoming PhD students, Salac recommends expanding your community beyond the boundaries of your research group.
“Cultivate your support system, both in and out of research,” Salac said. “PhD students spend a lot of time on their research; it's tempting to let it consume your headspace and let it slip into conversations outside of work. If you have a community where you cannot talk about your research easily, you're less likely to fall into that trap and have an easier time enforcing work-life balance.”