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

October, 2010

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Running On Empty



    The ACM and CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) released a report this week called “Running On Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.” The report was announced at an event for Computing in the Core, whose founding members include Microsoft, Google and other companies. Computing in the Core is pushing for the elevation of computer science education to a core academic subject at the K-12 level.

    The result is not a pretty picture. From the Executive Summary:

    Computer science and the technologies it enables now lie at the heart of our economy, our daily lives, and scientific enterprise. As the digital age has transformed the world and workforce, U.S. K–12 education has fallen woefully behind in preparing students with the fundamental computer science knowledge and skills they need for future success. To be a well-educated citizen as we move toward an ever-more computing-intensive world and to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st Century, students must have a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of computer science.

    There are some interesting low lights from the findings summary page. For example, only ten states allow for Computer Science, a pretty important field in the 21st Century, to be counted as meeting a graduation requirement.

    And “[c]onsistent with efforts to improve "technology literacy," states are focused almost exclusively on skill- based aspects of computing (such as, using a computer in other learning activities) and have few standards on the conceptual aspects of computer science that lay the foundation for innovation and deeper study in the field (for example, develop an understanding of an algorithm) …” In other words concepts are ignored while the focus in on short term skills development. As fast as things are changing in computer science we need concepts based education to give students a platform for them to be life long learners!

    You can find and view State-by-state Results and see where your state stacks up. You may be surprised at some of the states that rank very well or very poorly.

    The report includes a

    National Call to Action

    No other subject will open as many doors in the 21st Century, regardless of a student’s ultimate field of study or occupation, as computer science. At a time when computing is driving job growth and new scientific discovery, it is unacceptable that roughly two-thirds of the entire country has few computer science standards for secondary school education, K–8 computer science standards are deeply confused, few states count computer science as a core academic subject for graduation, and computer science teacher certification is deeply flawed. These are national failings and ones that we can ill afford in this digital age.

    Parents must ask difficult questions about how computer science is being introduced to their children in K–12 education and demand that schools move beyond the current basic technology literacy curriculum. Policy makers at all levels need to review how computer science is treated within existing policy frameworks and schools, and ensure that engaging computer science courses based on fundamental principles of the discipline are part of the core curriculum. Now is the time to revitalize K–12 computer science education and ensure universal access to computer science courses by making it one of the core academic subjects students require to succeed in the 21st Century.

    There are resources to do more, to do better, to prepare students in computer science. CSTA has the ACM/CSTA Model Curriculum for K–12 Computer Science. Companies like Microsoft have made FREE curriculum available (Faculty connection, beginning developer learning center, Expression Web Development Curriculum) and free software for students (DreamSpark – for full instructions on signing your school up for DreamSpark see How can High School Teachers provide students with DreamSpark Software) and low cost to free software for classroom use (MSDN Academic Alliance).

    What is required is the will to find the teachers to teach computer science and to find/make room in the curriculum. Allowing computer science, real computer science, to count as a code subject for meeting graduation requirements is a good first step.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Should Johnny Learn to Program?


    Last week I shared a link on Facebook - Why Johnny Can't Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy – that makes that case that everyone should learn how to program.  Philip A DesAutels, my good friend and one of the smartest people I know,  replied in Facebook with a long well-though out reply. With his permission I copied it below as a sort of guest post. I would love replies either to the origional article or to Philip’s reply. Who is right? Philip or Douglas Rushkoff? Should everyone learn to program and if so how much? Or should we only push a few into programming? [EDIT: The ACM and CSTA have a new report out about computer science education in the US. I blog about it here.]

    Philip wrote:

    I truly understand the place of CS in HS and so, I feel the need to rail against this article... Let's start with a line that sums up the central premise - "Digital tools are not like rakes, steam engines, or even automobiles that we can drive with little understanding of how they work." Ummm, hello Douglas, first each of these technologies - hand tools, steam engines and automobiles transformed humanity, each had a very dedicated training program for professionals and users and each was encapsulated to the point where it the technology (or its meta-equivalent - is now so well hidden that only a few experts need the professional design skills while the mass of users can apply the technology with some technical skills and deep domain skills. Let me explain.

    Rakes, aka hand tools - I am trained at the nation's premier craft school, the North Bennet Street School, in the art of using hand tools to build wood structures. I was in a class of 12 Preservation Carpenters who know how the make (not buy) moulding, who can build a timber frame and who can carve a Corinthian Column capital with an appropriate acanthus spinosus leaf detail. And if I continued in that profession, I would have been in a minority of carpenters, practicing an art form. Our chief competition and the reason most in the 'real carpentry' trade can't charge someone the $80 an hour is what I would term modernization... aka the Big Box and the lumber yard. Sally homeowner can run to Ikea and buy cabinets that she can put up herself, she can go to home depot and buy wood flooring that is prefinished and a sink that requires no open flame to install. Why would she call me unless she lives in a period house and wants to preserve an art form? Technology has encapsulated my skills (learned in two hard years of apprenticeship) and made them available to the masses. Is there still a need for real carpenters, not just assemblers as I call what most 'pros' and homeowners are (intentionally derogatorily since I am a real carpenter...)? You bet! But we do not have nor need tens of thousands of students studying the fine art of carpentry in its Vetruvian classical form. We need students studying modern building codes and sustainable building practices for the modern age. If they can't shoot a moulding by hand or tell you the appropriate ratios for moulding in a room, does it matter? NO... If these modern carpentry students can't use that encapsulated technology to build modern structures that are safe, energy efficient and stylish then we and they have a problem. Even if a few very skilled in the carpentry profession are creating the encapsulated components, there won't be anybody to apply them.

    I could make the same ranting point about steam engines - not many of us firing up the coal boiler to make steam to open the garage doors today...or the automobile - when was the last time YOU even checked you oil let alone adjusted the timing or valves... The points I make here are that 1.) Technology encapsulates, 2.) Encapsulated technology requires domain skills combined with a new type of technical skill to apply encapsulated technologies to modern problems. And.. herein lies the problem with the argument presented in this article and the call for more CS programs in High School. To what end? Is this like a call for more carpenters to learn how to make mouldings by hand? More HVAC professionals to learn how engines are designed? I THINK SO.

    There are students for whom programming is a desired skill. They want to be developers. Great for them. The giant hole in our workforce isn't entry level developers who can hash out c code and write a compiler from scratch. It is for people with combined skills who can APPLY encapsulated technology (lots thanks to companies has been encapsulated) to specific domains.

    So I offer up a different call. In high school, teach students how to apply technology. Teach them how technology fits with their domain of interest. Teach them how to use the components not how to build them. Those students that want to become more technical can choose to learn down the stack to real engineering (aka CS, CE, EE) or up the stack to become expert in technical domain applications (IS, CIS, Project Management, Bioinformatics).

    There are FAR FAR FAR more jobs out there today for someone with the technical skills to build a SharePoint portal, or light up a CRM instance or build a bioinformatics database than there are for someone who can build the next Python compiler. Let's stop trying to train the mass of high school students to become preservation carpenters, and instead make them very good contractors.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Links 4 October 2010


    What a week. On Friday I gave a keynote talk at the 16th Annual Technology and Learning Conference at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. What a great time I had. The conference organizers were absolutely wonderful hosts and the talk itself seemed to be well received. I think they recorded it and if  they post it on the Internet I will send out a link here and on Twitter. Of course I spent a lot of time preparing the talk which kept me busy along with the usual stuff. I like being busy though so it’s all good. And now some links to share.


    Remember that Computer Science Education Week is coming this December 5-11, 2010. Are you planning something special? Why not? Every other department in your school probably has a special week. And CS is really special. See ACM Hails Second Computer Science Education Week to Raise Awareness of Computing and Its Role in Society or the web site for more information.

    At the Technology and Learning Conference I met Kristen Swanson from the School District of Springfield Township. Springfield HS requires a computer sconce course for graduation. Does your high school? Here is a news article about their computer science graduation requirement. The course itself is described on their curriculum guide for computer science. For a district that graduates less than 200 students each year, that’s a very impressive set of offerings!


    Have you seen the new Dot Diva website for girls in technology? They announced their opening at Microsoft in Cambridge (MA) last week. I missed the opening event but have enjoyed looking at the site, the information there and the web show about a couple of women programmers. Episode one. It’s from WGBH, one of the top PBS TV stations in the nation, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Check it out and ask the girls you know to visit as well.

      The Microsoft Tech student Twitter account (@MSTechStudent) and Facebook page ask “Have you heard about the Imagine Cup Digital Media competition?”

      The digital media competition challenges students around the world to use their imagination to create a web video using multiple types of media, like photos, music, video, & voiceover. Your video must be about the Imagine Cup theme to "Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems

        There is a new “Make Education Great” contest from Microsoft's Office team Learn how you can win $25,000 to help make a difference in kids’ education in your community:

          Windows Phone 7 – First experiences with a real device is a blog post by Dennis Delimarsky (@DennisCode) a Microsoft Student Insider and gives a student’s eye view of Windows Phone 7 development.

          Looking at learning how to use XNA to create games and liking the idea of Windows Phone 7 games? @XNACommunity announced that there are ten brand-new pieces of XNA educational content for Windows Phone 7 available now for free.

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