Computer Science – A Field of Dreams

By Robert Plants

[Editor’s Note: This article was written in response to Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s call for submissions from selected writers. Bonnie is ETCJ’s editor of policy issues, and the focus of her call was Erik W. Robelen’s “Schools Fall Behind in Offering Computer Science” (Education Week, 7.14.10); WebCite version. -js]

You can’t build it and expect people to come. We cite statistics on what is and what isn’t but fail to dig into the symptoms. We point out initiatives that may influence supply and demand but don’t go on to look at what influences K-12 education that results in the dearth of interest in computer science. In most states, the emphasis lies in producing enough teachers to staff the education that we have. We have an educational system focused on a standardized curriculum, rote memorization, nationalized testing, curriculum standards. Dig a little deeper and you will find that the structure of schooling is about the little red brick building we have always known, grades, classrooms, curriculum, teaching strategies – one size fits all. In many ways, our system of schooling has not changed in 100 years.

Yet, we ponder about things like “Why isn’t computer science part of the curriculum?” and “Why aren’t there courses for students to take?” It wasn’t that long ago that I (as an adult) got to work with the first Macintosh. In fact, I can remember graduate coursework for the Apple II. So my point is, if we still have essentially the same schooling we have had the past 100 years, how can you expect a demand for a content area that has for all practical purposes been around for the past 30 years? I agree with the statement, “Given the ways computer technology – from iPhone and YouTube to medical research and national security . . . .”

Heck yes. There is a need. What we need then are ways in which we create the same level of need at the other end of the pipeline. Graduation requirements and AP courses are all well and good, but they are only haphazard.

What are some of the issues that need to be addressed? In my mind, current schooling is locked into the idea of traditional content areas. In fact, it’s part of the problem that school reformers are working so hard to address. The curricula is irrelevant to much of what we do in society. We need to create demand through helping people to see how content is relevant to the real world. Instead of seeing separate unrelated silos of content areas filled with disconnected facts, we need to educate about how content areas are tied to together to form careers in the real world. So when we say that computer science ties together STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), we then need to go further to explain how that knowledge connects to the real world and real world careers.

Outreach is necessary to reach parents, kids, communities, etc. I think one way that we do this is to boost the number and diversity of students from elementary grades to high school through workshops for teachers, summer camps, after school offerings, etc. NSF is funding these outreach activities, but there are not enough granting programs. Organizations such as ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) say they do outreach through offering a small number of yearly workshops for teachers and having an education component at their national meeting, but they don’t understand K-12 and they certainly don’t understand teacher education. So even in these large advocacy groups, there is a disconnect.

Beyond outreach activities, what else can be done? It seems to me if you generate interest with kids, families, and communities, you must also interest institutions that produce the infrastructure of schooling. This must start with our state governments, but it must reach further into our schools of education where we produce teachers to go into our state’s schools. As I mentioned earlier, schools of education are in the business of producing teachers for the schools that exist – schools where the curricula are very similar to that from 100 years ago. So we produce teachers to teach those subjects, and we are under pressure to produce enough teachers to meet the demand.

Our faculty in the schools of education have the expertise to continue to produce the same teachers for the same curricula, but they lack any expertise to produce teachers for STEM related subjects and/or with training or interest in computer science. Why else would those numbers mentioned be low and basically static? I propose that a different form of outreach needs to take place. We need to also reach out to teacher educators, state departments of education, media, etc. Demand must exist in the community and within the institutions that produce the teachers and oversee the educational system.

When the time comes, when the public demands it because they see the relevance and want their children to have the knowledge and skills to be prepared for careers in computational science, we will have computer science in the curriculum and within teacher education. When our institutions that support our educational system see the relevance and are subject to the demand, they will create the curriculum, the teacher education programs, etc. However, until then, we will be left with the same educational system, focused on standards, memorization, testing, preparing our teachers to teach in the same old way for the same subjects. States will continue to reduce funding, tinker with requirements, reduce hours in programs, etc.

5 Responses

  1. The statement, “Our faculty in the schools of education have the expertise to continue to produce the same teachers for the same curricula, but they lack any expertise to produce teachers for STEM related subjects…” rings true. An insufficient number of science teachers understand science. It’s not really their fault for they haven’t had the opportunities to develop that understanding.

    But this article is about “computer science.” Before any of us can respond intelligently, we must know what computer science is. Having spent a good part of my career writing software and even designing computer hardware as well as taking graduate computer science courses, I can comment that computer “science” is actually a combination of mathematics and engineering. It contains little or no science.

    What is the computer science that people propose for high school students? Is it compiler theory or computer architecture? Probably not. What I have seen in high school courses called computer science is simply computer programming aka software engineering.

    Should young people have a chance to write software in school when few will have a use for it in their careers? The same question could be asked about literature, trigonometry, science, dramatics, football, and more. Maybe students should be able to try out electrical and mechanical engineering in high school too.

    You can see the problem we face here. It’s a matter of what takes priority in education. Should a third year of science be mandatory or optional? Should a course in computer programming be mandatory or optional? If mandatory, what does it replace? Does it have to be a year-long course, a semester-long course, or just a unit of another course? If the last, then who teaches it? What are the standards for the course? How do you know that the teacher has enough training and experience to provide a valuable course to students?

    Writing software provides an excellent insight into what’s inside the box of computers, PDAs, tablets, and even today’s washing machines. That understanding may be useful someday to a student just as understanding what makes good literature or understanding the nature of science is.

    However, simply promoting computer science in high school provides insufficient grounds or information for deciding how to do it or even whether to do it. The most unfortunate part of this promotion is the name. It sounds so grand as though it’s a subject that combines computers (technology) and science, two parts of STEM. Tell it like it is. It’s an introduction to computer programming, writing software.

    If it deserves a place in your high school curriculum based on what it really is (and I’m not saying it doesn’t), then go ahead.

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  4. (Harry Keller’s comment has been reposted as a separate entry, so I cross-link to it here: ‘Computer Science’ Contains Little or No Science).

    Thanks to Robert Plants and Harry Keller for explaining the issues at stake in computer science education. However, is it still only about programming? It was when I was in high school, but back then computers were mainframe behemoths, and they were scarce. If I remember correctly, my school mates who took the “informatique” option took their punch cards to the mainframe at the University.

    “Informatique” is not exactly the same as “computer science”, but they have in common misunderstandings about what they mean. And the word “science” can be a killer when misapplied. The rather comatose first years of “Facoltà delle scienze delle comunicazioni” in Lugano may perhaps have been avoided if the Università della Svizzera Italiana had called it less arrogantly “Communication studies” instead of “science”. True, the fact the university itself claimed to be Oxford con il lago / Oxford on the lake didn’t help either.

    The “Oxford on the lake” book has since been discreetly taken offline (the link I gave is to its last version recorded by the Internet Archive – 2004), and both the university and the communication school survived these initial faux-pas. Nevertheless, it seems wiser not to bandy the word “science” too lightly, maybe.

    Couldn’t we speak of computer education, rather? This might/should include fostering curiosity towards new developments in a variety of sciences and applied sciences that are relevant to making computers and making them work, but also to making and making work other things.

    When I was a teen-ager in the late 60’s, two books awoke this curiosity in me and several of my school mates: Viktor Weisskopf”s “Knowledge and Wonder” (generous extracts available in the Google Books version of the 1979 edition), and Jean Rostand’s “Inquétudes d’un biologiste” (quotes in several sites/blogs: e.g. in this review).

    Many other curiosity-awakening books and other materials are available now.

    • Computer Science, computational thinking, computational math, visualization and modeling, gaming and mashups, these are some of the ways in which we introduce the ideas of computational thinking.

      There is a wonderful powerpoint by Pat Phillips of Microsoft that can be found on line that is a great
      descriptor of how it is that computational science is a part of everyday life.

      For computational math there is, and
      in the mix of lessons there is Interactivate.

      Vizualiztion and modeling, I found has come to the dentists chair.. at Smile centers… but also in probing medically for cancer, and other procedures.

      Workforce readiness is one of the things that people point to for the learning of computer languages.
      Scratch and other easy to learn programs are shared.
      I liked learning from Alexander Repenning in a day or so with scalable game design. I think there are some
      interesting choices on the menu.

      I am becoming involved in the use of GIS and GPS , as most people in the US are though they use them for navigation for their vehicles. A friend and i are doing a program to learn about Georgetown DC , and then DC, and then environmental DC and then transportation in DC. It is a way to empower youth using the history,, location, stories, art and information about where they live. We will be teaching kids from DC who have little access to high level computattional work to use GPS, and GS.

      I am trying to think what else we use in a commonplace way, I think weather is often forecast
      using a number of computer modeling systems that predict the eventual paths of weather systems.
      Indeed one Senator said to our bemusement, that we did not need NASA and other resources when we have the Weather channel. You know that lots of the uses of computational science are rather hidden as we use the final products of the research . has lots of educational resources , More than most of us can use. There are some new and interesting uses of computational science that the public does not see often, but windtunnels are now not the system of choice for testing vehicles.. computational science has tools for us to use. In the study of volcanic action and earthquakes there are sensors and monitors that are world wide to report and share on the moving of the tectonic plates .. tsumanis… etc.

      Archaeologist use tools of supercomputing to investigate as well.

      Then there is the cloud. Facebook is one example.
      Hope this helps. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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