We Need to Start Them Young

This is a posting that I know will upset some people.  I’ve written and re-written to try and take the sting out of it.  The purpose is not to throw stones at anyone so please don’t feel like I’m directing this at you, kind reader.  It’s my opinion and thoughts but I really would appreciate some feedback.

I think about this a great deal and I got thinking seriously about it again when I read Alfred Thompson’s post “No Room at the Inn-I Mean Schedule“.  In his post, he laments the current status of Computer Science education in the United States.  Well down in the post, he identifies some of the issues, as he sees them.

This is a complicated issue (I wrote some about it just last week at We Need A Wider Conversation on CS Education) but basically these are some of the issues:

  • Students have room for fewer and fewer electives because of increased mandates and CS is mostly an elective
  • Most states (42 of 50 including New Jersey) do not allow computer science to count as either a math or science so may not help towards graduation requirements
  • Students will often not take “hard” electives for fear of hurting their GPAs
  • Certification for computer science educators is a mess – I could write a lot about that but is should be sufficient to say that lack of a clear certification for CS teachers contributes to the problem

I have worked with the CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association) for a number of years as a volunteer working on their CS&IT Symposium.  It moves to various locations in the United States and we include a local volunteer each year to help define the program, based upon their expertise in identifying local issues and needs.  It has been a real eye-opener at times.  In light of that, I totally understand Alfred’s position.

I can best identify with the Ontario situation and do feel good in some quarters.

  • Computer Science is an elective but can be included as one of the Group 3 compulsory credit requirements for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma;
  • There are connections to co-operative education and secondary school high skills majors;
  • Ontario has a superb curriculum document identifying the five courses with each course identifying very specific strands including Environmental Stewardship;
  • At Faculties of Education, Computer Science is identified as a “teachable” subject area with a course devoted to teaching it;
  • Ontario has its own professional organization of Computer Science teachers working together sharing resources, techniques, and an annual conference;
  • The Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing supports Computer Studies teachers with a summer conference, various other institutes, and a repository of resources.

With all this, wouldn’t you think that Computer Studies would just be flying as a discipline?  In some areas, it’s very strong.  In others, not so much.  A decision to take a computer studies course presently does require a great deal of support.  Parents need to see the value of Computer Studies; Guidance Counsellors need to recognize how it can fit into a program of growth; but most importantly, students need to be interested in Computer Science and the concept of creating things.

It’s here that I think we’re dropping the ball.  Yes, there are a great deal of opportunities for computer use in the curriculum and teachers are taking advantage of it.  Students research things, write stories, drill themselves with mathematics, use Web 2.0 activities all over the place for a variety of reasons, blog, edit pictures on the computer, make movies, watch YouTube, …

But, how often do they sit down and experience the thrill of turning an idea into an action by writing a program?  Above and beyond the academic experience, writing programs can be the ultimate in individual effort.  Mary Beth Hertz had a nice take on this in a recent post.  In this case, she’s using Scratch as a programming language for her Grade 7 students and she talks about how she differentiated the learning experience.

It’s terrific to see that her students are programming in Grade 7.  But, is that early enough?  When you look at subject disciplines, they’re with students all their academic lives.  Math, English, French, Science, Music, The Arts – they all kick into a student’s life as soon as the morning announcements are over.  But, when does computer programming happen?  Well, Grade 10 formally in the curriculum.

I wonder if the lack of enrollment is a reflection that we’ve missed the boat.  Alfred uses the term “hard electives”.  That is indeed the word that you hear constantly when you ask students why they aren’t selecting computer science.  If you look at the curriculum, as a computer science teacher, sometimes it’s difficult to see why someone would perceive that as “hard”.  After all, we’ve been doing it all our lives it seems.

I wonder if the solution isn’t that we’re not starting the computer science concepts early enough.  Doing a word cloud or speaking into a microphone for a podcast and calling it computer integration pales in comparison to writing a piece of code to simulate a cash register or move a turtle to follow a specific path or instruct a robot to do a sequence of actions.

We do have the tools.  Mary Beth elects to use Scratch.  In the same genre, we have the Kodu or Alice programming languages/environments.  In the past couple of days, I’ve seen a new player (at least to me) that interests me.  Kidsruby is an implementation of Ruby for kids.  (and this big kid too!)  With a split screen, the right side devoted to Help, Output, and Turtle, it’s an environment where you can see it all at once.  Create, run, get help, draw – it’s all there.

With all of these options, could we do something to address the lack of satisfaction and enrollment in Computer Science with just a simple change? – like start kids programming younger than we are now.

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5 thoughts on “We Need to Start Them Young

  1. Doug, you’ll be happy to know that I start teaching Scratch in 3rd grade! My kids just used one of the Scratch cards to program a cat to move by using the arrow keys on the keyboard. I explain to them that there are programmers behind the games they play and that we are now programmers.

    My next Edutopia post will be about being programmers or being programmed & the importance of knowing about programming & coding. I agree that CS is in dire straits in our schools!

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  2. Hey Doug,

    Thank you for posting this. I didn’t know about Kodu. I’m going to check it out, and use it in a presentation I’m giving next week as an example of a GUI environment to learn programming in.

    David

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  3. Mary Beth, I am quite impressed. One of my students got a job teaching computer science and a group of her students wrote a faithful reproduction of Super Mario using Scratch. You can see it on the MIT site.

    As for program or be programmed, Donald Rushkoff keynoted the CSTA Symposium last year and gave a terrific speech. We also all walked away with a copy of his book. http://www.rushkoff.com/program-or-be-programmed/ I’ll look forward to reading your article.

    I did really enjoy your article about differentiation. I totally get it with the large number of students and challenges but I commend you for your efforts.

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  4. Very interesting post. I have been working at Seneca College for the school of computer studies for years (now known as the school of ICT). For the first time in years, I’m teaching the first semester computer programming course again. I would love it if all the students that come into our program have done some programming in any language. However, the requirements for acceptance into our program does not include taking programming courses in high school. This definitely makes for an interesting first semester class where you are trying to find that perfect pace for students with zero experience programming and those who have done quite a bit… this is the hardest part for me about teaching first semester programming.

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