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Progress on Computing in Schools: 2 Countries, 2 States

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

The movement to get computing into schools (at least secondary/high school, and primary school in some efforts) made progress in the last month. In April, Informatics Europe and ACM Europe released a joint report calling for more computing in secondary schools. Just a couple weeks ago, the State of Washington became the 10th state to count computer science towards high school graduation requirements.

I have had three big events in the last two weeks centered on the issues of computing at schools.

  • On May 9, I visited Lonnie Emard of IT-ology and Duncan Buell of University of South Carolina at Columbia to discuss computing education in South Carolina as part of our Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance work. IT-ology is a privately sponsored company to promote and educate about IT. Duncan has been working with CSTA and AP CS for years.
  • On May 13, I visited Aarhus University to speak at a conference hosted by Michael Caspersen, "Danish Youth: On the road to digital literacy."  Denmark has been testing a new computing curriculum (led by Michael) and is considering whether to make it nationwide and permanent. I was speaking on the US CS10K effort.  Simon Peyton-Jones was also there to speak on the Computing at Schools effort.
  • On May 17, I visited University of Maryland at Baltimore County to attend a conference hosted by Marie desJardins about Maryland's efforts to improve their computing education in secondary schools, along with my ECEP co-PI, Rick Adrion of U. Massachusetts-Amherst. Maryland is already way ahead of most of the United States. They have the most AP CS test-takers per million in population, and they have a CS teacher certification. What's more, Jan Plane of U. Maryland College Park told us that they just defined an undergraduate degree in CS and Education -- I think that's the first in the country!

I am continually surprised by how different primary and secondary school education is, around the country and around the world. I had no idea that, in England, the government defines the GCSE areas, but private companies define the curriculum and examinations for that curriculum. When I told Simon that each state in the US sets its own high school graduation requirements (there is no federal curriculum in the United States), and that in many states, that's delegated down to the individual districts, he asked, "Does that mean that each school or district creates its own exams for, say, US History? Isn't that an awful waste and duplication of effort?"

Here are some of my high-level lessons from these meetings:

It's easier to have something in place and then improve it, than to convince others that computing should be squeezed in. CAS has a huge advantage over the efforts in Denmark and most of the US, in that there already was "ICT" (Information and Communications Technologies) in the curriculum. Everyone agreed that ICT was not working, and that's given CAS a role in making it better. South Carolina already has a requirement for CS for all students in their curriculum, but the requirement is met by a course in business applications or Photoshop. Still, that gives Lonnie and Duncan an "in" -- they just have to show decision makers what CS really is. In Denmark and Maryland, they have to make an argument that CS should be fit into an overly-packed curriculum. That's hard.

Industry voices matter. Simon attributes the spark towards computing in schools in the UK to Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) making critical comments about ICT on a visit in September 2011.  Lonnie Emard gets the ear of people in South Carolina government because he speaks for scores of companies.

Public policy support goes a long way.  Denmark's Ministries of Science and Education were represented at the meeting at Aarhus.  CAS was asked the government's Department of Education to define the new GCSE in "Computing," and saw the number of GCSE's in CS go from 0 in 2009 to 5 in 2013.  CAS is now setting up the Network of Excellence for Teaching Computer Science, with government support.  Maryland had a variety of county and state adminstrators at their meeting.  Getting the policymakers to the table is a huge win in itself.

Economics isn't the only argument. In the CS10K community, we mostly make an argument about jobs. As the video describes, the US expects to have 1.4M jobs in IT over the next 10 years, but only about 400K IT graduates. That's not how Simon Peyton-Jones or Michael Caspersen make their arguments. They talk about computing as a fundamental discipline, and about how computer science provides thinking skills that are useful to everyone.  I was asked by Michael to make a broader argument in my CS10K talk, so I talked about Alan Perlis and about computing as a new kind of liberal art. I wonder if this is an approach we should be trying more in the United States.


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