Student conceptions about the field of computer science
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Computer Science is a complex field, and even experts do not always agree how the field should be defined. Though a moderate amount is known about how precollege students think about the field of CS, less is known about how CS majors' conceptions of the field develop during the undergraduate curriculum. Given the difficulty of understanding CS, how do students make educational decisions like what electives or specializations to pursue? This work presents a theory of student conceptions of CS, based on 37 interviews with students and student advisers and analyzed with a grounded theory approach. Students tend to have one of three main views about CS: CS as an academic discipline focused on the mathematical study of algorithms, CS as mostly about programming but also incorporating supporting subfields, and CS as a broad discipline with many different (programming and non-programming) subfields. I have also developed and piloted a survey instrument to determine how prevalent each kind of conception is in the undergraduate population. I also present a theory of student educational decisions in CS. Students do not usually have specific educational goals in CS and instead take an exploratory approach to their classes. Particularly enjoyable or unenjoyable classes cause them to narrow their educational focus. As a result, students do not reason very deeply about the CS content of their classes when they make educational decisions. This work makes three main contributions: the theory of student conceptions, the theory of student educational decisions, and the preliminary survey instrument for evaluating student conceptions. This work has applications in CS curriculum design as well as for future research in the CS education community.