A More Inclusive Computer Science, Starting at an Early Age
Salac came to computer science herself at a relatively late stage in her education, only taking her first CS course as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia to check off a requirement. But once in the class, Salac found she enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of computer science, and realized how learning to manipulate technology can amplify people’s abilities and impact.
“I derived a lot of satisfaction from writing code that worked and building something that worked,” Salac said. “At the same time, there was also the parallel reflection backwards of why didn't I get into this earlier, and why was I steered away from it?”
Motivated by that question, Salac’s research examines the obstacles that students face in learning the basics of computer science. With Franklin, she’s studied the relationship between skills such as reading comprehension, mathematics, and spatial reasoning and the ability to learn to write code.
While others have studied this topic in students at the college, high school, or middle school level, Salac is interested what works best for grade school children receiving early exposure to computer science principles. The findings, and new approaches she’s developing to assess CS knowledge in young students, could be used to build better curricula that connect with a broader population of children. Salac is also interested in working at the education policy level after attaining her doctorate, inspired by time spent interning at the National Science Foundation.
“Computer science education requires a special skill set that few possess,” Franklin said. “In order to be a very strong computer science education researcher, three sets of skills are helpful: computer science technical knowledge, educational / sociological knowledge, and research skills. It is rare to see an individual who can demonstrate excellence in all three areas because the skills required are so different, but Jean has already demonstrated that she is one of those unique individuals, and I am glad the National Science Foundation has recognized how truly special she is. This award is well deserved.”
In parallel to her graduate student work, Salac has also been an advocate for diversity and inclusion within the department and on the UChicago campus. She founded and co-chaired the Graduate Women in Computer Science group, and serves as the CS department’s representative on the PSD Student Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.
“I think my favorite part about our department, is that it's growing a lot,” Salac said. “It just feels like there's a lot of change going on, which is very good, because you get different people with different viewpoints. It feels like there's a good environment for collaboration and the melding of ideas here.”