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05 April 2023

The Joy of Conferencing

Chris Stephenson profile image
Written by

Chris Stephenson

Written by Chris Stephenson

I’ve recently returned from the ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium in Toronto, Canada and for many reasons, this conference was the highlight of my year and a wonderful reminder of the myriad ways in which computing conferences can enrich one’s knowledge, practice, and life.

The Technical Symposium is a long-running annual event organized by the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE).  Originally, the intended audience was undergraduate computer science faculty, but over the years the audience has expanded greatly to include elementary and secondary teachers; CS education researchers; graduate students; representatives from non-profit organizations working to support, enhance, and improve CS education; government people; and industry representatives. 

As is often the case, this event provides a forum for exploring new ideas about what and how to teach, who is and is not at the table, and what kinds of new research are being done. Sometimes, however, I find that the most interesting discussions happen in the hallways before and after the sessions. Here are a few hot topics of conversation from this year:

  • Should teachers be focussing on teaching AI at primary and secondary levels at the risk of ignoring fundamental CS concepts. 
  • How important is it to incorporate ethics into computer science courses at secondary and post-secondary levels.
  • How can educators address plagiarism in the face of increasingly sophisticated chatbots.

There was also some heated discussion of one presenter’s suggestion that since all students can learn online, physical schools are no longer needed. 

But perhaps more importantly (at least for me), it also provides a welcoming community that mentored and supported me in my early career, and now provides me with a chance to do the same for others. It has become a place to meet people who care and worry about the things I care and worry about and to build relationships that have led to life-long friendships. 

This year the TS was offered in hybrid format (virtual and in-person). Because the conference was located in Toronto, Canada (rather than in the United States where it is traditionally located) and held during a time when many primary and secondary schools in North America were enjoying their spring school break, the in-person numbers were a wee bit smaller than usual (about 700 as compared to 1500). For those for whom this was a first large in-person event in two years, the expanse of the Toronto Conference Center made these numbers feel very comfortable.

Over the years, the reasons why I attend the conference have evolved. As a young university researcher, I was desperate to learn more about content and pedagogy. As the executive director of a non-profit organization for CS teachers, I needed to better understand how to meet teachers’ needs and to best advocate for the discipline. Later, as the Head of Computer Science Education Strategy for Google, I needed to know which individuals and organizations were doing work that might benefit from Google support.

This year, however, my motives for attending the conference were more personal. I had missed my friends and colleagues during our COVID-related separation.  I also was excited for an opportunity to meet the new generation of graduate students who are already doing amazing things for computer science and for education. It also didn’t hurt that the TS was held in Toronto, the home town I left to move to the United States 20 years ago and have never ceased missing. Attending this event was going home in so many ways.

With everything you do, I know it can be hard to find time, energy, and resources to attend community events such as local CAS meet-ups and conferences. But if you can go, please do. Like me, you might not only learn something worthwhile, you may find a community that will enrich your practice and your life.


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