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Garrett Powell and Dr. James Prather at SIGCSE

Participating in research with a professor as an undergraduate is an activity that allows students the opportunity to grow in their intellectual and professional development on a whole new level. Dr. James Prather has been an integral player in providing SITC students with opportunities to research, write and present at multiple conferences. In March, Prather took his research assistant, senior computer science major Garrett Powell, to SIGCSE 2022, the premier international conference for Computer Science Education research held in Providence, RI. Prather and Powell co-authored one of the papers presented at the conference and Garrett attended the session with Prather.


The paper the team presented was titled, From the Horse’s Mouth: The Words We Use to Teach Diverse Student Groups Across Three Continents. The team was looking at speech patterns, such as vocabulary and speaking rates, and how that affected teaching and learning in the classroom. They analyzed audio transcripts of three introductory programming courses taught by different instructors, at different institutions, on three different continents as well as a popular online introduction to computer science course at Harvard. According to Prather, the group found that “Across continents and different ethnic groups, the words we use to teach introductory computer science is largely the same. This could either be a really good thing or a bad thing. Since this was the first study of its kind, we don’t know! We’re hoping that other researchers will follow up our work by exploring the words they use when teaching/lecturing in introductory computer science courses so that we can learn more about what’s being said and how it helps or hurts novice students.”


The team also observed “a striking difference in the rate of speech, a factor known to affect comprehension for non-native English speakers. These findings raise several questions about the speech we use in teaching. This is particularly relevant as the mode of delivery for many institutions is now entirely online, or involves recorded live lectures. These findings may also inform efforts to tailor delivery for non-native English speakers, students of different abilities, and pre-university students.”


As it disrupted many things, COVID proved to be a challenge in collecting data. However, the team found an innovative way to gather the information they needed by deciding to record themselves as they lectured. As Prather pointed out, no one had analyzed this kind of data before. Powell learned that while the data was easier to gather, working “with large datasets is very difficult, especially when you have to be meticulous.” 


The research gave Powell an opportunity to hone skills in working with data and also learning time management in collaborating on such a large-scale project with team members around the globe. He realized that his productivity impacted their ability to analyze and produce data. “It has made me more aware of the effect of my work on other team members.” Dr. Prather also found himself juggling more than usual. “I had to manage a larger team of students than usual and that stretched me. In addition to Powell, students Kelli Norris and Colleen Gostomski were also part of the team.”


Once the hard work was done, the fruit of their labor was being able to attend and present at the SIGCSE conference. For Powell, the conference and getting to see Prather present were his favorite part of the whole endeavor. Prather said it was, “great to attend this conference, which was the first one since COVID started. Connecting with old friends and seeing all the paper sessions in person was a big highlight.” Authoring and presenting research is a great professional accomplishment, but Prather is finding that this experience will help make him a better teacher in the classroom. It certainly has changed the way I think about the words I speak when lecturing in Programming I (our introductory programming course at ACU). It’s got me thinking about how complex my sentences are, the level of vocabulary and jargon I use, and how all of that might affect students whose first language is not English.


The mission of SITC in the College of Business is to educate business and technology professionals for Christian service and leadership throughout the world, in part, by fostering research and innovation in student opportunities. For Prather, it’s been satisfying to see how far Garrett has progressed. “Garrett is a fantastic student and an excellent worker. This is his third year as my research assistant and it’s been so immensely gratifying to watch him grow as a computer scientist and scholar.” For Powell, the chance to have this kind of experience is what sets SITC at ACU apart from other programs. “I would definitely say my favorite thing is how close all of the professors are with their students. You can only get this kind of relationship development at a smaller school like ACU so I am very grateful for that. It makes the learning process much more enjoyable and exposes you to experiences that you wouldn’t get at a bigger college.”


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