Computer Science | Feature

Overhauling Computer Science Education

Students from elementary school through college are learning on laptops and have access to smartphone apps for virtually everything imaginable, but they are not learning the basic computer-related technology that makes all those gadgets work. Some organizations are partnering with universities to change that.

The ability to use a computer, its software, or computational thinking to solve problems are not core K-12 subjects taught under most state guidelines by certified teachers. In fact, schools often blur the lines between computer technology literacy with the ability to use computational thinking skills across disciplines. Today, computer science (CS) curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software but gives no insight into how it's made or an aptitude for the technology to an entire generation whose everyday lives have become inextricably linked with computing technology.

While adopting best methods and practices in teaching computer science principles (CSP) is not standard procedure in most K-12 schools, some university projects are working toward that goal. The latest approaches pursue computer science education as far more than learning how to use a computer, building a spreadsheet, or even creating a Web page. It's about problem solving, computational thinking, and abstract reasoning across a broad range of subjects. According to supporters, you can incorporate these concepts into your curriculum--no matter what subject you teach--and prepare students with the skills for success in the new knowledge economy.

"There certainly has been an increase in students generally being more technically adept, and some have picked up a sort of 'hackers' sense in that they know lots about different Internet technologies and have made their own Web sites," said Clay Morrison, associate director at the University of Arizona's School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts (SISTA).

"We don't think that everybody needs to be able to be a professional programmer or know professional-grade programming, but we do think there is a good argument to be made that everybody should have some level of understanding of what computers can do and what they can't do,” said Leland Beck, chair of the Department of Computer Science at San Diego State University (SDSU).

Chris Stevenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), said they are not talking about training kids to fill seats in software development sweat shops but rather to make sure K-12 students are at least given the opportunity to learn the basics.

"The position of the CSTA is that every kid needs to know something. Not every kid should aspire to be a computer scientist, just as not every kid should aspire to be a chemist or physicist or athlete," said Stephenson. "But there is a certain amount of knowledge that everyone needs in order to function effectively in this society."

That also means equipping teachers with the tools and best methods not just for introducing computer science principles into general education at the high school level but to give students a strong foundation from which to integrate computing into any field they pursue--from insurance sales and banking to biotechnology or the arts.

A Lack of K-12 Curriculum
According to a December 2010 report, "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," released by the Association for Computing Machinery and the CSTA, computer science education is scant in most American elementary and secondary school classrooms. And most schools teach students how to run a computer's applications but are not using the technology to teach computational skills. In fact, 14 states have adopted no standards at all for upper-level computer science education. The number of introductory and advanced placement courses in computer science has actually declined in the last five years, and only nine states count computer science credits toward graduation requirements, according to the report.

Another study released a few months earlier--in May 2010--also concluded that the integration of computer science into the K-12 curriculum in the United States has not kept pace with other countries, resulting in a serious shortage of information technologists. The report, "Addressing Core Equity Issues in K-12 Computer Science Education: Identifying Barriers and Sharing Strategies," was produced by the CSTA, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI), and the University of Arizona's Department of Computer Science. According to that study, inconsistencies in computer science certification plague K-12 school systems, where fewer than 65 percent of schools across the nation offer an introductory-level computer science course.

Teaching Teachers
For CSTA, there is no issue that creates more frustration than teacher certification, said Stephenson.

"The certification for teachers for CS in this country is beyond a mess," said Stephenson. "Either there are no requirements and anyone can teach computer science, or they're technology requirements that have no CS content. In some cases, the teachers are required to write practice exams to prove that they can teach computer class where there isn't a single question on computer science."

Stephenson said part of the problem is that universities say they can’t teach CS because there is no certification process, and states say they can't enact a certification requirement because there are no programs to train the teachers.

The CS10K program was launched in response to these and other studies with a nationwide goal of training 10,000 high school teachers to teach advanced computer science courses by the year 2015 guided by the College Board's CS Principles national project. The effort includes developing a research base for the teaching of computational skills and concepts and developing mechanisms for infusion of computational thinking across the curriculum.

On that note, it was announced Sept. 12 that the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and SDSU received National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to jointly expand the computer sciences curriculum among San Diego's high schools, community colleges, and universities. The three-year grants, worth a total of nearly $1 million, are for a project called Computing Principles for All Students' Success, or ComPASS, which will contribute to the nationwide CS10K program.

Currently, there is no teacher certification process for CS in California. Nevertheless, the overall goal of ComPASS is to improve Southern California's educational capacity for preparing high school and college students of all backgrounds and disciplinary interests to participate in the "computationally driven economic future." The ComPASS program calls for SDSU to offer "pre-service teacher training" through a senior-year course covering both CSP material and methods, particularly to all single-subject majors, not just those in math or science.

"Whatever major you're going into, computers are going to be involved some how,” said Leland Beck, chair of the Computer Science Department at SDSU and SDSU principal investigator for the ComPASS project. "Especially in banking and insurance, you'll be using computers all the time."

Starting in January 2012, the ComPASS program will also offer training for current high school teachers and will continue to evaluate strategies and methods designed to prepare teachers to teach computer science. At least six community colleges in the region will also offer CSP courses equivalent to the UCSD and SDSU courses.

"It's a new approach to CS principles and it was something that was introduced initially at college and we are now bringing it into the high school teaching level as well," said Diane Baxter, director of education at SDSC and UCSD principal investigator for the ComPASS project.

According to Baxter, the teachers who participate will be "self-selected" in that ComPASS is working with principals at the high schools to promote the program and see if they are willing to support use of the curriculum by their teachers. The NSF grants support teachers with a stipend, as well as a full class-set of books and the needed support materials, including interactive teaching hardware that allows high school students with clickers to participate in open quizzes.

"We don't want to work with teachers who don't want to do it," noted Baxter.

In addition, those high schools teaching the new CS courses will be able to offer transferable credit to the San Diego area's two largest state universities. The goal is to use the credit to attract high school students to the classes, giving them a strong foundation from which to integrate computing into any field they pursue.

Extra Credit
Expanding Your School's CS Program

Computer Science Education Week (CSEW) is designed to draw attention to the issues revolving around upgrading CS courses to meet 21st Century needs. Designated as December 4-10, 2011, CSEW is a collaborative effort of Computing in the Core (CinC) to acknowledge computing pioneer Admiral Grace Murray Hopper's birthday: Dec. 9, 1906. CinC, a non-partisan advocacy coalition of associations, corporations, scientific societies, and other non-profits, strives to "elevate computer science education to a core academic subject in K-12 education" and has a few recommendations to address K-12 computer science education's basic policy obstacles for state and local governments:

  • Clearly define and include K-12 CS education in education initiatives;
  • Develop CS standards and assessments for grades K-12;
  • Ensure that courses count toward a student's core graduation requirements either as mathematics, science, or CS credits;
  • Expand CS teacher professional development opportunities and address teacher certification issues.

"The question that all educators and all school systems are groping with is, 'What's the amount every kid needs to know,'" said CSTA's executive director, Chris Stephenson. "We keep expanding our expectations as to what our kids are going to learn and then we face budget crunches where we can't even give them some of the stuff we've always given them. And then we say 'OK, now we have new expectations.'"

While many states lack computer science certification for high school teachers, there are a few ways school administrators can squeeze in better coverage of such core course material without much disruption or added expense. Stephenson said that high school administrators should try to be flexible with their hiring practices and with the teachers they've already hired.

"Try and discover if your math or science teachers have taken CS in university, or at least have a couple of CS courses under their belt because they may be fine for teaching a computer science introductory course," said Stephenson.

Stephenson also noted that feedback from CSTA's 10,000 members has indicated two other trends that seem to work. One involves partnering with a local community college that already offers a CS course and work out a dual credit system where students not only get credit toward their high school graduation but also earn credit toward college.

CSTA also suggested looking to Web site producers to build online CS courses. According to Stephenson, this solution works well for those rural students who don't have any access to CS instructors in their high school or at a nearby community college.

"This is not ideal because it's really tough to learn CS online, but at least it's something for the kids," said Stephenson.

Interdisciplinary Approach
At the university level, CSTA's Stephenson said she is seeing more and more interdisciplinary approaches to teaching--both teacher and non-teacher students--in what she calls "combinational sciences" where a CS education is linked with other sciences or humanities.

"We're seeing a huge number of university programs starting to come up in those areas because those jobs are available and waiting for people to fill them," said Stephenson.

At the University of Arizona, the School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts was recently launched to affect change at the university level and to provide an interdisciplinary curriculum based on computing across all majors.

"We really see this as useful, whether somebody goes on to become a professional programmer, or if they go into marketing or become an artist," said SISTA's Morrison.

A bachelor of arts in information science and arts and a bachelor of science in information science and technology were approved in 2010.

"Our BA is intentionally meant to be very broad and we are trying to cater to students who may come from the humanities or from the arts," said Morrison. "What we are trying to achieve is basically a modern version of a liberal arts degree where, in this modern information age, information technology pervades everything."

The SISTA program contrasts itself from the traditional CS track in that it combines the ability to use a computer with the ability to understand data by introducing the basics of statistics and probability as the language of data. Morrison said SISTA is planning a graduate program as well as a Ph.D. program.

"The master's program will have two tracks," said Morrison, who added the working title is "Computational Intelligence." "One track will be very course intensive, and the other will be research intensive."

Morrison also said the future plans for SISTA include summer outreach programs for high school students, much like what the UA already does for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses.

CS: A K-12 Elective?
One of the hurdles to introducing or expanding computer science in K-12 is finding the room for the courses.

"What's wrong is when kids don't even have the opportunity to take these courses even when they're interested," said Stephenson at CSTA.

The May 2010 study CSTA helped produce found that courses in the fundamentals of computer science often don't count as general electives in high school or as college-preparatory electives. Stephenson said that kids today are very savvy in terms of knowing what they need--and don’t need--in order to meet graduation requirements, and so most will not take courses unless they count for something.

"So what we say is it has to count for something and the simplest thing--which a lot of states have done--is to make it count as a graduation requirement as a math or science credit," said Stephenson.

Stephenson also noted that some schools have a tech requirement--the "T" in STEM--and that many of those requirements could be fulfilled with a CS course as well.

"Most of what we're doing in schools right now is we're teaching our kids how to be passive consumers," said Stephenson. "There is an assumption I think on the part of an older generation of teachers--and a lot of parents--who think because they see kids using the technology all the time, that they understand it. That's just not the case, and when you don’t understand how things work, it's very easy to become a victim of things that you don't understand."

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct an error in a quotation. The quote in paragraph 3 from Clay Morrison should have read "There certainly has been an increase in students generally being more technically adept,..." rather than "inept," as previously rendered. [Last updated Dec. 8 at 10:41 a.m.] --David Nagel