In Conversation: Dr Ethel Tshukudu (Computer Science Education Researcher)

When she began her undergraduate Computer Science degree, Dr Ethel Tshukudu realized that the difficulty she and her peers had with the subject was mostly borne from teaching methods that did not take into account their lack of prior experience in computer science. This realization prompted her to choose computer science education as her research focus for her PhD which she recently completed with the University of Glasgow.

In this interview, she takes us through her early career in Computer Science, her view on the lack of women's participation in computer science academia, her stance on the role of computer science education in helping Botswana achieve its "knowledge-based economy" agenda, as well as her impressive achievements over the course of her career.

In your own words, please tell us who Dr Ethel Tshukudu is

I am a highly motivated Computer Science Education researcher and scholar who is enthusiastic about making CS education accessible to all. I am driven to demystify computing concepts for students which currently remain one of the most daunting subjects locally. 

Having worked for the University of Botswana as both a database developer and a CS education lecturer, I like to think that I have a wealth of both industry and academic experience which I honed internationally by working for international organizations such as Sagefox (USA), Raspberry Pi (UK), University of Cambridge and the University of Glasgow. 

Briefly take us through your career journey up to where you are now

Upon completing my BSC (Computer Science) degree, I worked as a Database assistant and then got promoted to a Database developer in the IT department at the University of Botswana. I was responsible for managing and administering the servers and databases of the University’s enterprise resource planning systems. I later on switched to academia after completing my master’s degree and I was responsible for training teachers who would go on to teach computer science/studies in secondary schools. Shortly after the transition, I was admitted to do my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Glasgow in the UK, specializing in computer science education (how people learn and teach computer science) which I completed recently. During my PhD, I also got to work as a researcher in areas of computer science education.

What motivated you to pursue this career path?

In switching from an IT role to research and academia, I wanted to enjoy the flexibility of the job's nature and the intellectual freedom to set my own schedules and choose what I wanted to research, in computer science. Despite the challenges in academia, I am aware of my privileged position. As a researcher and lecturer, I have the opportunity to positively impact the world I live in, including mentoring students and producing research that can help change the world for the better, especially in areas of computer science education.

You have recently completed your PhD studies with the University of Glasgow. Please tell us more about your research area

As I mentioned earlier, my Ph.D. is in Computer Science, specializing in how people learn and teach computer science. I conducted my research in the UK, Norway, and the Netherlands. My research investigated how computer science students transfer conceptual knowledge between programming languages like Python and Java. I designed a model of programming language transfer and developed a unified pedagogical guideline for promoting transfer in programming languages derived from the model.

Why did you choose this particular research area?

When I started my undergraduate degree, I was introduced to programming for the first time at University which was a bit unpleasant to me and I dare say, to most of my peers as well. I realized that this subject was only made difficult and gave us a negative student experience mostly because of teaching methods that did not take into account our lack of prior experience. I, therefore, found this intriguing as I progressed with my academic career and discovered that there is a large literature from at least as early as the 1980s on the difficulties encountered in learning programming languages, and in particular also additional programming languages. I chose this research area to investigate the source of these difficulties especially when students transition to new programming languages. 

Unfortunately, CS academia still has a big gender gap problem. As a woman in the field, what has your experience been in such a field and how have you dealt with the challenges that come with such a wide gender gap?

Often times there are negative perceptions about women in CS academia, also especially younger women. There are perceptions that we are not technically savvy enough, that we know little and that men are more capable than us until we prove them wrong. Even when we prove our capability, it's still not enough. Challenges we face in participating in CS careers are usually persistent throughout our careers. I commend organizations that are actively prioritizing gender equality within their hiring or culture. 

However, there is still a considerable way to go before we see equality in the CS careers including academia. I have been fortunate to have a PhD supervisor who believed in my abilities to contribute irrespective of my gender or age which boosted my confidence in my abilities. Also as women, we have the challenge of pursuing a PhD versus family and child raising and I have to say that it is wrong to expect women to have to choose between these two. I and other women are examples enough that women can do both and be brilliant at both. I have been fortunate to work with brilliant minds at female-dominated tech organizations such as Raspberry Pi. This then shows that it is not all doom and gloom and women are making great strides in these male-dominated tech spaces. 

What do you think can be done to reduce this lack of representation?

Encouraging more women to participate in CS academia and other tech careers can help bridge the gap and promote the diversity of our society and promote development, productivity and innovation in our economy.  The low representation of women in CS has prompted a lot of research to understand the challenges and ways to have more inclusive environments for them. Some of the challenges include gender perceptions, stereotypes and lack of support in CS education. Encouraging women to participate in CS academia and careers starts as early as encouraging them to enrol in CS courses. 

Research shows that girls’ interests and attitudes towards CS are influenced by their learning environments. We can build interest by creating conducive environments for them such as mentoring opportunities, role models, early exposure to CS, collaborative learning, connecting to their prior experiences, interests, goals, and values, and building their confidence and professional identity. Additionally, the media can help reduce negative stereotypes about women in CS by spotlighting women making great strides in the field. Organizations must also ramp up efforts to support mothers pursuing careers in tech and academia, lest they find themselves having to choose and forgo their career aspirations as most are wont to do. 

Grassroots Computer Science education is key to nurturing generations of young people who will help push Botswana’s “knowledge-based economy” agenda as well as the country’s 4IR aspirations. From your research work, please compare CS education in the UK where you are based to Botswana?

Students in higher-income countries, including the UK, generally have better access to CS education than in African countries like Botswana. CS education is more than just introducing students to how to use computers (Basic ICT skills like using a computer and Microsoft office); it also should include teaching students how computer systems are built and how they can build them. In the UK, we have seen a shift from teaching basic ICT skills to a knowledge-based curriculum comprising more computer science concepts, including algorithms and programming. Lately, the UK is also considering including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) in their education system. The UK uses a combination of formal and non-formal education initiatives to introduce students to programming from primary school to secondary schools. 

Through the right policies, Botswana has made great efforts to introduce computer awareness and studies courses in secondary schools. The country has provided the necessary ICT infrastructure for most secondary schools. Despite the significant initiatives and progress the country has made in integrating CS into the curriculum, it still suffers many challenges. These include providing all schools with sufficient ICT infrastructure for CS education, reviewing the curriculum and introducing programming from primary to secondary level, training teachers, funding, and providing the right policies that support the change. I am passionate about helping change the state of computer science education in Botswana, which is a project I aim to embark on for the next couple of years. Together with the ministry of education, and relevant stakeholders locally and internationally, this can be a mission that can be accomplished, with the right kind of support and dedication from all stakeholders.

What do we risk missing out on if the critical improvement areas you mentioned are not addressed?

CS is seen as a competitive advantage in the global economy for all countries. To build a knowledge based economy, its very important to empower our young people at early stages of their education to be computational thinkers and problem solvers who can help improve the economy through smart and innovative ideas which can improve production and corporate efficiency. Also, it is important to help our people gain a basic understanding of computer science concepts which can help them to learn other subjects, as well as understand the risks and benefits of technology in their lives. 

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

The proudest moment in my career was during my PhD at Glasgow university. I achieved more than I could have imagined before starting my PhD. During the four years of my study, I worked with lecturers from Glasgow and Norway to help them teach second programming languages to deepen conceptual understanding. I have published multiple academic papers in highly ranked international conferences and journals, winning the best-paper runner-up award at the Koli Calling conference. I collaborated in my research with international researchers worldwide, including England, Scotland, Norway, Netherlands, USA, Thailand, Brazil, and Africa. I also managed to work for leading global organizations in CSEd, including Sagefox from the USA, Raspberry Pi Foundation from the UK, and the University of Cambridge. 

In community work, I have been recruited as an external examiner for the MSC thesis at the University of Bergen, Norway. I have also worked as an academic paper reviewer and committee member for international journals and conferences. My examiners nominated my thesis for the best thesis award. I was also invited to Philadelphia, USA to share with potential partners about the state of computer science education in Botswana and also got to share ideas with leaders of industry such as Google and Code.Org directors and others. I recently got to visit Germany on an invitation to participate in a Dagstuhl seminar, which convenes leaders in computer science research from around the world, where I got to present my research and spend a week with programming language designers pondering educational programming languages. There is a lot more I achieved during my PhD which I am very grateful to God for.

What advice can you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in CS research and academia?

If I can achieve it, so can you. I am an ordinary girl from Marapong who has managed to attract the interest of the International CS community in my work. I firmly believe in exceptional work ethics. If one believes in themselves and is self-driven then everything is possible. I have found myself moving in directions I was cautioned against but because of my strong resolve and never giving up, it always bore fruits.

Anything can be learned and you should strongly believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.  You just need to believe it's possible and work hard to achieve it. 

Lastly, please share with our readers your contact details in case they want to get in touch with you.

Twitter: @EthelTshukudu

Linkedin: Dr. Ethel Tshukudu

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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