The Hour of Computer Science

LAKSHMI on January 08, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg endorsing computer science education

Considering that less than half a century ago, the idea of using computers was considered fantastic, if not ludicrous, the proliferation of computer and technology not only into offices, but also into homes, schools and even handbags is nothing less than magical. Users of computers, in fact, technology in all its forms, now transcend age, nationality and gender. In most nations of the world that are economically and politically stable, technology is used in almost all facets of daily life and thus computers and software impact lives and society every day. The use of computers and other forms of technology at home has seen an exponential increase, as seen in the data collected by the American census bureau in 2011. While the data is for USA alone, it is reasonable to expect a similar trend in other nations as well.

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The growth in technology use has resulted in the need to teach computer skills to children. Thus, the three R’s of learning – Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic has, in the past decade, expanded to encompass a fourth “R” – (p)Rogramming. But has computer education kept pace with the growth of technology itself?

Apparently not. According to a study conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), the situation is not encouraging. In the US, computer science is not considered by states and/or local school districts as part of the “core” curriculum offered to students at the secondary school level. In many states, computer science courses are still not counted as a separate core course, but are grouped along with mathematics or science courses. In fact, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics reports a disturbing trend that computer science is the only one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields that has actually seen a decrease in student participation in the last 20 years, from 25% of high school students to only 19%.

Even more disturbing is the fact that there is a clear gender and racial divide with respect to the type of students who are offered or who take computer science based courses. In 2008, although 59% of students who took the Advanced Placement test in 2014 were women, only 25% of those that took the Advanced Placement (AP) computer science test were women [AP Program Summary Report]. Even more disturbing is the participation and success rates of ethnic races in computer science based AP tests. In 2012, only 8% of Hispanic Americans and African Americans took the computer science based AP tests, and the situation has not improved significantly since then.

Interestingly, countries such as RussiaChina and India have been offering computer science as a core course in schools and colleges and/or have separate schools that teach computer science and programming out of school hours, for more than a decade now, with excellent student enrolment. In the US, there are many factors that contribute to the alarming mismatch between need for computer science education and offerings of this subject as a core course. The current federal, state, and local government policies underpinning the K–12 education system are conflicted in the area of engaging computer science as an academic subject. The shortage of well-prepared teachers, on instructional materials and adequate resources and infrastructure to support teachers and student learning also contribute to the poor state of computer science education in the K12 system in America.

There are now efforts to repair the situation. Joint efforts by computer industry, academia and government policy makers have resulted in the introduction of programs such as the “hour of code” project to disseminate computer science education to kids, and encourage them to learn. The “hour of code” is a one-hour introduction to computer science, organized by Code.org and CSEdWeek, and backed by the likes of ACM, IEEE-CS, CA Teachers Association, National Center for Women and Information Technology. Statistics show that in 2013, over 15 million students worldwide participated in the hour-of-code to learn various aspects of computer science and coding, and going by the response of both teachers and students, it has been enormously successful. Although the one-hour introduction to computer science was held during the computer week in 2014 (December 8-14th), its success and acceptance points to expansion of the program into other times of the year.

The acceptance of computer science as a core course in the K12 curriculum depends on participation by policy makers, academicians and parents alike. Demand from parents for introduction of computer science courses to children will induce policy makers and academician at all levels to review the place of computer science in the core curriculum.  When introducing computer science as a core course in schools, it is important to keep in mind that computer science education must teach fundamental concepts of computing, just as a mathematics course must teach everything from number theory to geometry before embarking on calculus and higher math. So also, a computer science course must be a continuum, starting from basic concepts to advanced topics such as programming or even hardware design. It is obvious that such a vast breadth of topics requires an expanded time frame. Therefore it is essential that computer science not be introduced suddenly at higher classes, but started at the elementary level to allow the student to get a continuous and comprehensive feel of the field by the time she finishes school.

But why should computer science be introduced in school? A more compelling reason than the fact that when you are surrounded by something, it is only logical to understand it, is the fact that the computing sector will have 1.5 million job openings over the next 10 years. This number is not as staggering as it would be when read along with the following statistic. According to a study by Bureau of Labor Statistics, NSF, computer science is the only STEM field where there are more jobs than students [Source].

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But that is not all. The knowledge and skills gained through basic computer science education enables innovation and deeper understanding in the other traditional fields of STEM. Computer modeling, for example, is an inherent part of any academic field, and involves many of the fundamental concepts of computer science.  The word “computational” is now a standard prefix to almost all areas of science, engineering, business, finance and perhaps even art!

It is imperative therefore that K–12 schools introduce computer science early and at all levels to make students college- and career-ready.

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Image credit: code.org