Blog: The Educated Reporter

Creating Coders: Building Computer Science Skills In K-12 And Beyond

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contributes posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Kevin Hardy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. You can find out more about STEM education on EWA’s topic pages. 

We’ve all seen them: The two or three desktops sitting against a classroom wall. The labs filled with rows of Dells or Macs.

Most parents (and perhaps some education reporters, as well) see those computers and just assume that computer classes are being taught, said Chris Stephenson, the executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association

But that’s not necessarily the case.

“Just because there are beakers in the closet doesn’t mean they are learning chemistry,” Stephenson said. “They need the curriculum. All this equipment without the curriculum is meaningless. But all the curriculum without the equipment is a waste of time.”

Stephenson told reporters gathered for EWA’s seminar in Los Angeles that computer science education in the United States is woefully lacking. There are problems with standards. There is a lack of teachers. And students find little reason to take computing classes, which are often boringly easy or extremely rigorous.

“The truth is we do have a crisis in computer science education,” she said.

While many schools have plenty of computers, Stephenson said most of the technology is years behind. There’s an assumption that because computing teachers are tech-savvy, they can “teach 21st Century skills with 20th Century technology,” she said.

“Most computer classrooms look like duct tape city,” she said. “There isn’t a piece of equipment in there that isn’t held together by duct tape.”

Aside from the financial and equipment constraints, demographics are proving challenging, both with students and teachers. A generation of mostly self-taught computer science teachers is dying off or retiring, Stephenson said, and no one is waiting in line to replace them.

Getting licensed to teach computer sciences is tricky, said Debra Richardson, professor of informatics and founding dean of the University of California–Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science. And when computer courses are taught, they’re generally on far ends of the spectrum. Many classes center on computer applications, teaching basic computing like how to make a PowerPoint presentation — skills that even young kids have already mastered. On the other end, tough AP computer science courses focus mainly on coding.

“We need something in between that really exposes students to what computer science is all about,” Richardson said.

Some promising courses are emerging. Los Angeles Unified School District started an Exploring Computer Science class, which examines problem-solving, human-computer interaction, Web development, an introduction to programming/coding, data analysis and robotics. And there’s a forthcoming Advanced Placement course, Computer Science: Principles, which “will introduce students to programming but will also give them an understanding of the fundamental concepts of computing, its breadth of application and its potential for transforming the world we live in,” according to the College Board.

Richardson says too often computing classes don’t count toward certain graduation requirements — they’re simply another elective on a large menu of offerings. And the point of high-quality computer science courses shouldn’t be just to better equip students to use technology.

“We want them to be the creators of technology,” Richardson said. “And in order to be the creators of technology, they really need to understand more about computer science. We all think our 5-year-old niece or daughter or son knows so much about computers because they can always find whatever it is on whatever gadget we have. But they don’t really know how to create that.”

Aside from the access issue, there is a real need for more racial and gender diversity in the computing pipeline. Research shows that diverse teams have better return on investment for companies and make better products, Richardson says, but colleges aren’t delivering diverse computer science students.

“We don’t want our computer science workforce to be all white and Asian males,” she said. “Because that’s what is looks like now.”

The Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles seems to be making a dent in that problem.

Teacher Leslie Aaronson runs the three-year technology academy at the Title I school. In her classroom, which resembles an Internet startup, kids learn the ins and outs of computing. They get an intro to coding. But soft skills are just as important. Aaronson has worked with local companies and knows they want employees who are creative, self-starters, proactive and good communicators.

To teach technology — and the soft skills to go along with it — Aaronson said it takes a fundamental change in instruction. It takes a focus that isn’t centered on the teacher’s knowledge, but that teaches students how to constantly discover on their own.

“The truth is computer science is constantly changing,” she said. “And if I don’t teach them how to teach themselves to be flexible and how to try, then they are going to fail,” she said, “because to know what I know is to already be behind.”


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