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. Continue reading

Computational Thinking – What Is It?

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

I attended the first CS4HS High School Teacher Workshop: Computational Thinking and Computational Doing from June 25-27, 2010, at the ATLAS Institute on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus. (The conference was featured in the Boulder DailyCamera.)

First, a bit of background. I have been working in advocacy for STEM and related technologies, lurking around the edges of computational science for some time thinking about ways in which to incorporate new kinds of thinking for students in our schools. I have attended the leading Supercomputing Conferences and brought teams to the events to try to change teaching and learning so that computational thinking, with games and simulations, could find a prominent place in the forefront of those inserting STEM into the curriculum. However, I am not sure the conference is always happy with the outcomes of teacher participation since it’s difficult to gauge the longterm effects of what happens in the classroom and some presenters don’t have a very high regard for the ability of teachers to work with technology.

But this CS4HS workshop in Boulder was different. Its focus was on teachers, and it was par excellence! Continue reading

Deconstructing STEM

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

In K-12 education these days, you’ll see frequent use of the acronym, STEM. This word stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This term is so widespread that no one even seems to question its use. Yet, the inclusion of these four subjects and the exclusion of any other is actually rather arbitrary and tends to mislead the general public about the nature of these subjects and how to teach them. Possibly, it’s the push from industry for more employees trained in these areas that has resulted in this emphasis.

Many people, even in education, do not have a full understanding of the essential differences between these four subjects. Science teachers may present them to students as being essentially the same. Funding agencies are proposing lots of money for STEM education. What are they proposing to fund? Even if you know all about STEM, please take a moment to read the analysis below and comment on anything that’s incorrect or incomplete.

To begin with, why exclude other subjects? For example, physical education uses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics extensively. If the use of one subject by another is reason enough for inclusion in a grouping, then physical education certainly should be added to form something like STEPEM. You can make a case for inclusion of some other subjects as well. Roping off four subjects from everything else makes no real sense for education.

However, it’s the lumping together of these four that makes the least sense. Why not HELASSAWL, grouping history, English language arts, social science, arts, and world languages? Yeah, it’s a mouthful compared to STEM, but logically, it makes as much sense. To understand why, take a look at each of the four STEM subjects.

Mathematics began centuries ago as a means to an end. It was used to regulate trade (arithmetic) and to deal with land (geometry). Then, Euclid came along and made logical, step-by-step proofs the bedrock of geometry. Mathematics hasn’t been the same since. Instead of being just a means to an end, mathematics now stands by itself in pure abstraction with its proof-based system of functioning.

Something that hasn’t been proved in mathematics is merely a conjecture. Mathematicians don’t have to relate their work to anything going on in science, technology, or engineering. They start with axioms and build a tower of theorems, corollaries, and lemmas. Doing mathematics requires a special way of thinking and extensive training.

In total contrast to mathematics, science is all about disproof. Science doesn’t stand apart from the real world in abstractions. Science involves inquiry, exploration, and discovery within the context of reality. It’s a voyage into the world of ideas that develop into explanations of the universe. Scientific theories mean nothing unless they can be compared with real data.

Scientists know that they can never prove their theories. That’s one reason that they’re called theories. New data tomorrow could overturn or at least modify today’s favorite theory. Examples abound. The geocentric view of the universe was overturned (probably more than once) by the heliocentric theory, which itself was modified when all stars were found to be rotating around a galactic center.

Mathematics plays an important role in every branch of science. The eponymous Lord Kelvin, immortalized as a temperature scale, said, “When you measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it.” Mathematics then allows processing of those numbers. Whether physicists are doing quantum mechanics or biologists are making statistical analyses of experimental results, mathematics permeates science. Nevertheless, mathematics is not science. Doing science requires a special, nonintuitive way of thinking and extensive training.

Engineering is all about making things. Engineers use the knowledge they have of how things work to create new physical entities. Much of this knowledge comes from other engineers who have tried numerous approaches and found which work best, and the data used are empirical. Other knowledge comes from the discoveries of scientists.

Engineers design, build, and test. They create skyscrapers and highways, toasters and microwave ovens, automobiles and racing bicycles. Scientists discover; engineers create. These two acts, discovery and creation, seem to be wired into our brains so that we consider them to be very pleasurable. There’s little other connection between these two disciplines, except that they seem to require each other. The discoveries of science help to fuel new engineering, and the new stuff that engineers create often provides devices that scientists use in their research such as telescopes, microscopes, spectrophotometers, and so on. Engineers require extensive training.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors. Building a fire and crafting a spear were early examples of using technology. Today, it’s hard to take a step without involving technology, for example, the technology represented by your shoes. Because technologies are closely tied with scientific discoveries and with engineering designs and creations, people may readily confuse these.

A course on technology, by itself, will be a rare occurrence in elementary and secondary schools. Instead, you find technology woven into K-12 science courses along with engineering (e.g., robotics). Technology makes our lives easier, delivers better health, and allows us to explore places previously inaccessible. It also complicates our lives, pollutes our environment in numerous ways, and requires us to extract our planet’s resources to feed it.

Scientists discovered the ideas that made today’s flat panel televisions possible. Engineers turned these ideas along with engineering principles into televisions. The technology consists of the televisions, all of their pieces and parts, and the means to capture and send the images and sound to the individual televisions. In all of these activities, the scientists and engineers use lots of mathematics, but mathematicians play no role in creating televisions. A technologically literate person will know much about the technologies involved in delivering the television experience to living rooms but may not be familiar with the engineering principles involved in the design. This same person may not understand the nature of science either.

Interestingly, the California Institute of Technology provides bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, many branches of science, and several disciplines of engineering. However, there’s no degree in technology.

This conflation of four terms into STEM, an artificial thing that we’re supposed to be excited about teaching to K-12 students, makes little sense. Science and mathematics departments like it because it elevates them somewhat in the din of the discussion of how to improve education. Here’s what’s actually happening on the ground in many school districts. The districts receive some federal money for improving education. The various departments put in their proposals for a piece of this funding. ELA (English language arts) and mathematics ask for more, in total, than is available and receive all of the money. The science and history departments, not to mention music, arts, physical education, and others, get nothing.

The push for improved reading and mathematics scores trumps everything else and shortchanges the places where real learning takes place. But that’s material for another column.

[Note: The paragraphs on technology were revised by the author after initial publication. 1.15.10]

The President’s Town Hall Meeting Could Have Been Entitled ‘No Teacher Left Behind’

bbracey80By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Note: The following article was originally posted by Bonnie Bracey Sutton in a WWWEDU (The Web and Education Discussion Group) discussion thread on “The State of Education in the Nation. Uneven But the President is on task,” on 26 March 2009. It has been revised for ETC. -js]

One of the advantages or disadvantages that I have is that I live in Washington, DC. That means I get to go to the hill and hear what President Obama actually says as well as reports from the different groups and sources on the latest in education.

I just attended an online Town Hall Meeting at White You may want to review this presentation and or listen to the President, in his own words, share his perspective on education in the nation. I have heard the pleas from, The Convocation on the Gathering Storm, the Innovation Proclamation, and the MIT PiTAC groups. It was like going to the hill with the cheerleaders for change in education. But today, the President talked directly about teachers, early childhood education, charter schools and evaluation, and innovation.

What was so interesting to me was that he talked about the support that is needed for teachers. Unlike Michelle Rhee, he did not play the blame game. He acknowledged that he had the best of education but that education is delivered unevenly in the US. He said that teachers need professional development, first, and then we can talk about measurement and merit pay. He must have been reading the local DC papers. How refreshing to see that he gets it..

Here in Washington there is a school where students are throwing books at teachers when they turn their backs. It’s not about technology. It’s about classroom management and attitudes. The President said that not only do teachers need to know curriculum, but they also need to know how to manage the classroom.


I attended a STEM initiative yesterday that was presented by the National Center for Technological Literacy, NSTA, and NCTM. It was a briefing of the House STEM Education Caucus. I also attended two STEM workshops yesterday. One was excellent. The various groups talked about science, math, technology, and engineering, and gave references, links to websites, and resources. The participants at the STEM advocacy meeting were encouraged to network. There were plentiful materials for all, and even a handout of all of the powerpoints. This was organized by Sharon Robinson and the STEM Alliance, The House STEM Education Caucus, and Innovative STEM Teacher Preparation Programs. It was worth getting up to go to.

At the Education of Science Teachers in Pre-Service for college teachers, in a powerpoint on Science Teacher Education, the focus was on content knowledge and content courses in programs. There was mention of the pressures from NCLB and other mandates. They actually said that in many states science in elementary schools had become a nonentity because it has not been tested and relegated to 20 minutes a week, if taught at all. There was discussion of the disconnect between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants,” but the group acknowledged that there were some who were digitally disconnected and barack-obamatherefore not in either category. Discussion revolved around a holistic approach to educating pre-service teachers. This was the point made by Jon Pederson from the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Often people teach teachers how to use technology without explaining how that technology changes the classroom and the ways in which we must work.

In Mathematics Teacher Preparation, Dr. Francis Fennell discussed teacher education programs, emphasizing mathematical and pedagogical content knowledge needed for teaching math. Based on evidence from the 2009 National Mathematics Advisory Panel, he said that a substantial part of the variability in student achievement gains is due to the teacher’s ability and knowledge of math.

He discussed the critical shortage in most states of high school and middle school teachers. He talked about the various pathways into teaching and said that we must improve teacher mentoring, professional development, and retention. He was clear that the National Math Panel supported the idea of elementary math specialists. He predicted that there might be mathematics specialists at every level.

The only disconcerting thing for me was that he did not seem to know what computational math is and why it should be included in his road map to math excellence. See

There was handout from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It stated that every student has the right to be taught mathematics by a highly qualified teacher — a teacher who knows mathematics well and who can guide students toward understanding and learning. A highly qualified teacher understands how students learn mathematics, employs a wide range of teaching strategies, and is committed to lifelong professional development.

An interesting variation and new discussion centered on the Atlas Program, Advancing the Technological Literacy and Skills of Elementary Educators, sponsored by the Museum of Science, Boston ( They shared a rationale for engineering technology in elementary grades and discussed the needs, goals and outcomes, and a plan for distribution of this program to community colleges and four years institutions. This program and its highlights are available on the web.

Then I went to the NEA building to the 21st Century STEM initiatives presentation. Chris Dede began the talk in maybe ’92, and we discussed the 21st Century Initiatives. I actually worked for the first initiative, doing outreach to teachers after I finished my work on the NIIAC, and shared resources, ideas, and philosophy on the use of technology in the US. There were many players who had ideas at that time who were collaborating with the 21st Century Initiative. Sadly, I learned yesterday that the group is stll wedded to Margaret Spellings and the original NCLB talk.

There was no mention at all of science, geography, and the innovative part of STEM that we have come to know about from The innovation seemed to come from INTEL, and there was little mention of UDL, but Ken Kay never mentioned science, engineering, and/or technology as a complete subject. Maybe they need to retool and re-educate themselves on the new direction in which the President is going. Instead they wanted states to sign up for more standards. Maybe Ken Kay has not heard the Secretary of Education’s speech at the NSTA conference.

Arnie Duncan and the President mentioned SCIENCE and Technology. The difference between what the President actually says and what others SAY he says is huge. It is significant that the President and the Secretary of Education pay particular attention to the STEM work. Governors are also on board. There are special STEM academies and Project Lead the Way. Robotics First and other initiatives are being shared, as well as the results of ITEST NSF grants as ways of working. The vocational science issues that are addressing workforce readiness and the Perkins initiative were also important additions to the discussion by the President and Duncan.

The 21st Century Initiative seems to be more a membership initiative that is looking for state buy in. If they are not really going to include real science, real math, computational math, and science and engineering, they should not call their work STEM initiatives.

Geography ( No one mentioned it.