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Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with Seung Yu, the principal of the new Academy for Software Engineering, a new software/computer science focused school opening in New York City this fall. We had a great discussion about the school, its goals and how Microsoft might work with them. It’s an exciting idea – a school like this. I understand teacher openings have been posted and resumes are pouring in. I can imagine that to be the case. Beyond this particular school I have found myself thinking about a broader issue of fitting computer science into the curriculum. Not just at a school focused on software engineering but schools in general.
My good friend Leigh Ann DeLyser, who is on the advisory board of AFSE among other activities, pointed out to me that the latest math standards include recursion. This is of course an important concept in computer science as well. Seems like a good fit to join the two fields. There are of course many other examples we could find with a little looking. We get caught up in the discussion of “is computer science and math or a science or none of the above” rather often. I get caught up in it myself. We do this because we tend to compartmentalize subjects in education. We break down math into algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and more even though its all really mathematics. The upside of this is likely to be being able to focus. The down side is that we take too much in isolation and out of usable contexts. We do tend to mix some things. Math needs to support physics for example. Though in all honesty I have heard physics teachers complain that they have to teach some of the math needed for physics because the math department doesn’t cover it. This is a symptom of the compartmentalization I already alluded to.
Its worse with computer science. In schools we treat it as if it didn’t relate to math or science or anything else for that matter. In the world away from school this is far from the case. We seldom talk about CS in isolation. It is CS & biology, CS & physics, CS & business, CS & just about any field of endeavor you can name. So why do we teach CS in isolation in schools?
This is changing in higher education. The Georgia Tech system of different intro CS courses including their cool media computation course for example. Wheaton College (MA) uses genetics as a context. And there are more including using robotics which combines CS and various engineering disciplines into a single course. I can see this trend increasing but I’m not sure it is a model that fits well into high schools.
I think we need to work at ways of including more computer science into other parts of the curriculum for two solid reasons. One is that we are losing the battle for stand along computer science courses. The battle over including CS as a math or a science is a tough one and there are tough entrenched interests (math and science teachers) who are not real happy about the idea of losing students to a “new” program. The second reason is that we need to get students thinking more computationally and we need them thinking about computer science as a tool for solving problems in other areas. And we need them thinking this way sooner.
At Microsoft we have created (or really had teachers create for us) some web development curriculum that is designed to work well with other subjects. (Take a look at http://expression.microsoft.com/education) for some samples. It’s a start. But ultimately we have to look at more ways to include more programming tools (Kodu for some, Small Basic for others and serious stuff like Kinect and Windows Phone programming for others) into helping to teach more subjects. Of and more tools from other people no doubt. The key thing is to find things that work – that mutually support both Computer Science and other subjects.
What we need are win-win solutions that stop things from being a zero-sum game as they are today. I’ve seeing to helpful things in this area by the way. One is that Imagine Cup teams are looking at educational games which tend to pair computer scientists with subject matter experts from other fields. The other is the really exciting projects teachers are submitting as part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum. You can read about the US Forum entries from round one at Finalists Announced for Round 1 of the Microsoft Partners in Learning 2012 US Forum. while I have highlighted just the CS related ones at CS Finalists for 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum. If you are doing something cool I hope you will apply as well. The deadline is May 15th.
And take a look at what students are doing and vote for your favorite at Imagine Cup people's choice voting. Is it bad that I am promoting voting for the one high school team in the mix? Digital Infinity! No Facebook account or what to vote more often? Text "Digital" to 45444 Or Tweet your vote "@mstechstudent I am voting for #Digital in #ICPeoplesChoice. Rules: bit.ly/PCRules"
Years ago, when I was a student at Taylor University (in what is now the Taylor Computer Science and Engineering department) there were more women in computer science than there are today. The women did as well as the men under what I would call some challenges. Specifically they had a curfew (this was a long time ago) and the men didn’t. Many of the male students would stay up until all hours of the day and night working on projects while the women left the computer center at what would be generally considered a reasonable hour. And yet the women always had their projects in on time. Somehow that never registered with me back in the day. I was sort of oblivious to the fact that the women got more done in less time than most of the guys. Weird now that I think about it. We certainly didn’t have lower expectations for our female classmates. In fact the opposite is true.
I remember a field trip we took to a big computer conference in Chicago. Many of the exhibits had hired what we call today “booth babes” to decorate the booths and attract visitors. I’ll never forget the confused look on a male classmates face when he explained “the women at the booths don’t know anything. They are just there for decoration!” We, naive young people from a small college with a good percentage of women in CS, honestly expected women to know as much about computers as we did. And why not! We had female classmates who knew as much as we did. Most of us had been impressed with Grace Hopper who had come to campus to speak to the students and who several of us had had lunch with one day. She was amazing and seemed to know more than we ever could know.
My first few jobs after graduation also saw me working with many women. The small software house I worded for in my first job had more women programmers than men. Tough smart women who worked hard, worked smart and had actual lives besides. Husbands, kids, the whole bit. Seemed pretty normal to me. It was years before I worked for a male boss. My wife also worked as a programmer in those days BTW. Her programs had this annoying habit of working the first time she ran them. It was enough to give me a complex.
Somewhere along the road things changed and women started becoming the minority in the field. I don’t know where it started or how. I know that if it was a deliberate effort on the part of men I missed the meeting. But happen it did. From a time before my time when software was considered “women’s work” until now when the view of too many is that it is just for men things changed. Not in a good way either. Now we are playing catch up trying to restore some semblance of balance.
This is a problem that many in academia and industry do recognize. Recently the New York Times had an article about Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and an outstanding computer scientist in her own right, and her efforts to improve the ratio of women to men in her college. A number of universities are similarly trying to increase the number of women in their programs. A number of companies are likewise trying to fill the computer science pipeline with programs such as DigiGirlz (which I wrote about here at DigiGirlz Cambridge MA). But there are stereotypes out there that are hard to overcome these days.
I firmly believe that we need more diversity in computer science. More women. More ethnic and racial minorities. More people who are not “pencil headed geeks with limited social skills.” BTW we don’t have as many of those as a lot of people think we do! We face a great many problems for which great software is part of the answer. But to really live up to that potential the field needs people of all types. Those of us already in the field really need to do our part to make the rest feel welcome. We need them more than they need us.
This is one of those announcements that hits my inbox that is for all teachers in K-12. Partners in Learning is a community of educators of all subjects and age groups. Something here for everyone.
Microsoft Partners in Learning would like to invite you to join the new ‘Partners in Learning Network’ – a worldwide community of educators and schools www.pil-network.com. Embraced by the theme ‘Your Ideas Matter’ the PiL Network is a community for you, by you, and further amplifies the great work that is being done every day by teachers and schools around the world. With this idea in mind, we invite you to try out this global online resource and community designed to encourage collaboration and the spread of ideas for the betterment of education worldwide.
The new Partners in Learning Network is the next generation of the global network serving educators and school leaders in over 115 countries. To facilitate a truly global community of innovative educators, the site is now available in 36 different languages, thanks to the use of Microsoft Translator Services. The evolvement of the Partners in Learning Network has advanced by including many more new features appealing to educators and schools leaders, including:
Listen to what some of our members had to say about their experience with the new Partners in Learning Network:
“The Partners in Learning Network offer teachers an online community filled with product downloads, tutorials, activities and discussions. What I am excited about is the opportunity to share with teachers some ideas and resources that ALL our students could use effectively and easily in and out of the classroom.”
“This is not just a networking site, it is a treasure chest of resources, lesson plans, and invaluable learning content from the world’s best.”
“As a professional development opportunity the Partners in Learning network is unparalleled. The more teachers and schools that we can get involved the more innovation and corresponding results will follow.”
To sign up now, visit http://www.pil-network.com.