Don’t Lose It

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Don’t Lose It

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Years ago I saw a cartoon, it was probably in The New Yorker, that was set in what looked like an excusive upper class businessmen’s club. Two very well dressed overweight businessmen were seated in overstuffed chairs. One of them was saying to the other “I owe everything I am today to some advice my father gave me. He said ‘Son, here’s a million dollars. Don’t lose it.’” I’ve been thinking about that cartoon as I think about getting students interested in STEM and computer science. Aren’t most kids born with an interest in most everything? Somewhere do they lose some of it and if so why?

Mark Guzdial has a short but interesting post last week ( Child Development Expert Offers Ideas for Promoting Early Science Learning and read the comment by Alan Kay) where he said.

“… young children act as scientists.  My read of the literature suggests that kids don’t turn away from science until middle school.”

IF you think about it kids start looking at science very early in basic ways. How many parents have heard questions like “why is the sky blue?” or watched as a small child sat enraptured watching ants in the dirt? And isn’t building things with blocks quite a bit like engineering thinking? When children are very young they have a fascination with the world around them – science. Counting things – math. And figuring out how things work – technology/engineering. But somewhere along the line they lose much of that. In some ways we teach it out of them. We take the interesting and turn it into he boring. We take the fun of learning and make it work. We often even take the fun out of reading (to bring up another pet peeve of mine) by assigning books that are “good for kids” rather than books that are interesting and fun to read. We could have it all.

I will never ever forget the Materials Science teacher I had as a freshman in high school. The man was a nutcase in many ways but, boy, was he interesting. He was passionate about his subject, had a blast showing us experiments/demos and instilled in me a fascination with the subject. It’s a wonder I didn’t go into the field but at least I took a knowledge and understanding of the subject that has served me well through my life. He sure improved my love for science in general as well.

How does this relate to computer science? Well I think that in the younger grades we can either make computer science look boring and like work or we can make it look interesting and like fun. Why not use tools like Scratch and Alice and maybe robots? (I’m working on a list of educational robotics resources for later this week BTW.) Why not use kinesthetic learning projects like those in Computer Science Unplugged? Let’s not kill the interest in computers by making it all about drill and kill with applications usage courses. Not that those applications are not important these days but let’s not use learning them as a way to kill interest. Let’s find better ways.

Kids are born with an interest in science (and other things) so let’s not push them into losing that interest.

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  • That's a good summary of, not only computer science, but a lot of subjects.  We lose the wonderment because of the introduction of academic rigour.  I also think that a lot can be attributed to the resource selection.  Granted, it's easier when looking up or having a few ants is all that's needed.  As Computer Science teachers, we need to find ideas and activities that are motivating to solve.  Scratch and Alice are intriguing but they also need interesting problems for the students to solve.  We need to find some way to bring curiosity back and launch from there.

  • A few years ago I tried to get a Programming class into our elementary school.  The assistant principal asked me to take a look at the kids’ schedule and find a place to fit it in.  And there-in lies the problem.  The kids do not have time for a new topic in their day.  They are buried as it is in all the "necessary" classes: math, English, science, music, etc, etc, etc.  In the high school there are electives and the kids have some options.  The elementary does not.  I did manage one year to get an Alice class in for the 7th grade for a semester but it was only select kids that could be taken out of their regular technology class because they already had a large tech skill set.  The tech teacher does introduce Scratch but it is very cursory, she has too many other things the kids really are going to need to learn to survive high school (Microsoft Office).  Another difficulty I encountered was I could not find a programming curriculum/textbook/guided learning program/whatever for the elementary classroom.  Elementary teachers do not have the time to teach Scratch from scratch.  What is needed is a book titled “A One Semester Course in Programming with Scratch for 4th Graders Written for Teachers That Have Never Used Scratch and Do Not Have Time To Play With It To Learn It”.  Replace “Scratch” and “4th” with a language and grade of choice.  Remember, not many Elementary Ed degrees (if any) require a programming course.  I have yet to meet an elementary teacher that knows any programming that they did not learn themselves over a period of years.  Elementary tech teachers are mostly Office, Photoshop, Audacity, etc literate.  They teach apps and that is it.  If CS and programming are to properly introduced into the elementary school I believe it would require a complete revamping of the elementary curriculum and the University Elementary Ed degree.  I cannot quite picture it happening.  The biggest help would be for someone with lots of time on their hands to write that book.

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