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Help The President Get IT Right

While it may seem like good news, President George Bush's State of the Union promise to improve national competitiveness by supporting math and science education may turn out to be very bad news for computer science education.

In his State of the Union address, Bush promised to train 70,000 teachers to lead high school Advanced Placement math and science classes. Unfortunately, he didn't say anything about computer science.

The problem is that computer science is a science and that it should be seen as a core component of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives. Training more math and science teachers will simply diminish the already shallow pool of qualified computer science teachers.

What we have, you see, is a communication problem. Too few people understand that computer science is as much part of the core of required knowledge for every educated citizen today as physics, biology, chemistry, or mathematics.

In addition, all of the government's economic indicators point to the Information Technology industry as the primary field for job growth and resulting worker shortages over the next twenty years. Any government education initiative that does not improve support for computer science education will never improve our national competitiveness in key areas of innovation.

So what can we do?

It is essential that we help everyone, especially policy-makers, to understand a few simple things:

1. Computer science is a science and needs to be included in any STEM initiative for high schools.
2. Teaching students to use computers is only half the battle. Computer science education is the key to preparing students for tomorrow's technology driven world.
3. Several fields in computer science over the next ten years will be among the fastest growing careers but the current lack of support for high school computer science education is contributing to the declining number of students pursuing studies in this field.
4. To keep the United States competitive, we need to effectively educate the future creators of advanced technology--the innovators and problem solvers.

And we need high school computer science and high school computer science teachers to do all of these things. We are already seeing school districts pulling good teachers out of computer science classrooms and putting them in math or science classrooms to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Legislation and this new initative will make the situation worse, not better.

Help CSTA get the word out! Talk to your congressmen and your senators. Help them understand why supporting computer science education in high schools right now is the key to long term innovation and economic survival.

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director


Public education about what computer science is might be important as well. I get a sense that that's poorly understood from people I've talked with.

First we need to be sure that there is a license for teaching computer science at the secondary level in every one of the 50 states. In states where there is no license anyone who teaches AP CS is guaranteed to be teaching 'out of license'- which usually means that the teacher majored in something other than CS (e.g. math) and is less well prepared in CS than s/he is in the other subject.
So...how about an initiative to get licensed (in CS) CS teachers in every state.

Personally, I don't think much concrete is going to come from Bush's comments regarding STEM education during the remainder of his presidency. At least there was public acknowledgement from the administration (a start), but much of this was to placate the science community.

Unfortunately, computing disciplines have a image problem. Most students/parents are basically clueless about the field and its opportunities. Part of the problem stems from the term "computer science," which is not viewed as a science in the traditional sense (a natural science). Also, computer science (K-12, college) is generally not taught as a science (primarily advancing knowledge for mankind), but rather training in a skill - programming/software development. Most graduates of CS programs are not scientist, but closer to engineers who use knowledge and principles to build things for mankind. Until this becomes clear to the public, our disciplines image problems will persist.

A number of us, including Allen Tucker and Tim Bell have had long debates about this. My own perspective is that the focus in K-12 education should be movement toward more computer based mathematics, computing based critical thinking, and everyday applications of computing. Building the foundations of computing and confidence in using computing early will win in the long run over trying to sell "computer science" as a term which does not fit.

Point number 2, I think, is the critical one that even well-intentioned schools and teachers miss, and it's the point that's the hardest to educate people about without teaching them a little CS along the way. And it's the point that is preventing CS from getting the respect it deserves.

What we're fighting against is the mindset of (decision-making) adults who had never had to take CS when they were in high school. And hey, they came out fine, right?

My personal opinion is that the solution is a simple one...if colleges start requiring some level of CS education, high schools will find a way to get it into their curriculum. Of course, to get colleges on board is complicated...

The name of the game in high school is "where can my kid go to college." And colleges are currently not respecting CS - some even cross it off transcripts and recalculate GPA. Why? Because, let's be frank, some "CS" courses are really no such thing. We do need CS standards so that a college admissions board can respect some good cs curricula, but I think initially it shouldn't be that hard to get them on board with AP CS.

I agree with Chris that it is unfortunate that President Bush did not specifically mention Computer Science ?

Computer Science is a core component of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives ... as is clearly indicated in "Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century" available online at http://www.ed.gov/inits/Math/glenn/report.pdf .

Lack of understanding of this inclusion has resulted in a competition not just for teachers but for students, as each year, states increase the number of credits for "core subjects" required for graduation while defining computer science as an "elective". The result is that in markets where an adequate pool of qualified computer science teachers might exist, enrollment is insufficient to justify maintaining such a teaching position.

We do have a communication problem. Studies indicate that those students who are effectively prepared will not want for productive employment and that if we fail to increase the number of qualified graduates with expertise in math, science, engineering, and computer science the United States will face a national crisis. These are national studies made by our own government ... so, why are so many apparently unaware ... at all levels of the public sector?

I agree with Chris - I would also like to add a comment on the critical role that diversity will play in such an effort. In particular, adequate growth in the information technology (IT) workforce must incorporate diversity: we cannot afford the continuing disengagement of women, under-represented minorities and persons with disabilities. The lack of a diverse IT workforce impairs the way that technology is created, marketed, and consumed. It underutilizes the talent and input of two thirds of our population, and it diminishes our ability to innovate. It blunts a potential source of differentiation for the US in the global economy.

As a computer scientist and an inventor myself, I would really love to see computational thinking become a "core" science. I also would like us to solve this image problem and reach out to a more diverse audience, both men and women. NCWIT is doing its part to make that happen.

Not only is CS a scientific discipline, but it is going to become the most important discipline, and may even play the role Math played in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, let alone all technology and engineering areas. Already today CS is the basis of or at least an essential part of many researches not only in Physics, chemistry and Biology, but also in the social sciences too. Dual-disciplinary undergraduate degree programs which combine Economics and CS, Psychology and CS, Management and CS, are very popular today (at least in Israel). If High-School students will not get a sound CS education, they will lack one of the main skills they'll need for their professional life, whichever direction they will choose.

Judith Gal-Ezer, CSTA Board of Directors, (international director)

Computer science is a very important field of study for our ever-growing technological world. It is important for primary and high school students to at least learn the basics of computer science, to prepare them for use in the 'real world'.

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