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March 30, 2006

Taking TECS to the Next Step!

Two weeks ago I was in a conference call with an agenda that included discussing possible strategies for promoting CSTA's Teaching Engaement for Computer Science (TECS) workshops for teachers. During the meeting, we talked a bit about ACM's recent Job Migration study, and also about how and when to publish our upcoming CSTA white paper on strategies for successfully developing and implementing a high school computer science—the result of a fascinating panel discussion that took place last summer during the CS&IT Symposium.

Each of these topics is a single piece of one daunting puzzle. How do we redress our country's misperceptions about the nature of computer science in order to bring our students in line with their peers across the globe?

I left the meeting with a renewed sense of purpose. I was so inspired in fact, that before I set out to tackle the action items from the meeting, I sent a quick mass email to a long list of CSTA institutional members who have expressed an interest in volunteering their time to our projects. (Some of you may have received that email.) The message was an appeal to faculty to consider hosting a TECS workshop for the teachers in their region. In the email, I described the TECS program as a tangible, proven resource for high school teachers that relies on committed volunteer faculty for its survival.

The email must have struck a nerve, because in the two weeks since I sent it, I have been inundated with dozens of letters of interest from potential TECS workshop hosts! I'm so happily occupied answering the new hosts' questions and helping them organize workshops that I've been hard-pressed to find the time to actually publicize the workshop series (the intention of the original conference call)! Of course, this is the ideal situation, since positive word of mouth is what truly makes our programs grow and grow.

I am hoping that some of you reading this blog will be interested in joining our efforts. We want to give every high school computer science teacher an opportunity to attend a TECS workshop, and to do so, we need to organize a lot more workshops!

Let me quickly describe the program. TECS workshops provide one, two, and three-day workshops for high school computer science teachers as well as high school teachers from other subjects who are curious about learning, and/or teaching, computer science. The workshops are hosted by college and university CS faculty members, who volunteer their time and effort. The workshops cater to teachers within reasonable driving distance of the workshop sites.

Hosts build their workshop curricula from a broad and flexible list of modules that range from the relationship between math and computer science, to principles of computer organization, to an introduction to programming languages! Additionally, at every workshop, hosts address issues of equity and ethics in computing. As part of our program, all hosts agree to provide follow-up community building activities after each workshop, allowing teachers to solidify their relationships with one another.

TECS is grass roots community building for CS teachers, executed on the local level, resulting in a multi-tiered mentoring infrastructure of educators from secondary teacher to university instructor.

We are literally reinvigorating CS education in the US, one workshop at a time.

(If what you are reading sounds familiar, you may be have heard about JETT, our workshop series focused on preparing AP CS teachers to teach Java. Indeed, the TECS program works the same way, but with a different audience of educators. JETT, for the record, is still going strong!)

TECS exists because we believe that we in the importance of working together to support K-12 comptuer science education. Our program relies on your interest and involvement! If you would like to learn more about hosting or attending an upcoming TECS workshop, please feel free to call or email me! I would love to hear from you.

JETT and TECS Coordinator
212 626 0507

Posted by cstephenson at 06:59 PM | Comments (0)

March 24, 2006

Just the Facts

While it has been great to see the computing media/business media coverage of ACM's new Job Migration study, I worry about how much of the important information in this report is actually filtering down to students.

The most pervasive misconception about computer science, especially among students and their parents, is that there are no longer any job opportunities in this field. Media coverage about offshoring has played a major role in spreading this misinformation. My hope is that media's coverage of the Job Migration study may help undo some of the damage that has been done.

Contrary to what many people now believe, employment in IT in the U.S. is at an all-time high. As ACM President Dave Patterson noted in a recent column in Communications of the ACM (February 2006, 49(2), pp. 41-41) it is even higher than it was at the height of the dot-com boom. Contrary to the situation in other industries (think manufacturing!), annual job losses due to offshoring have been no more than 2-3% of the U.S. IT workforce.

As Patterson also indicated, there are also several types of IT work that are not likely to be offshored, including:
* Work that has not been routinized
* Work that is critical to a company's control over its own operations
* Work involving data security, data privacy, intellectual property, or proprietary information
* Work that relies on a combination of application-domain knowledge and IT knowledge.

Beyond the information about jobs in the IT sector, ACM's report raises some interesting ideas about curriculum which should be of direct interest to K-12 computer science educators.

Keeping students competitive in this new global IT economy is going to take more than drilling programming concepts into their heads. Our students need to become better problem solvers, to be curious, innovative, and creative. They need to see the connection between what they are doing in the classroom and real problems in the real world.

We also need to think seriously about making the so-called "soft skills" an integral part of our curriculum and our pedagogy. Students need to build team work and communication skills, and also to develop cross-cultural understandings that will allow them to function as citizens of this new world.

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 01:36 PM | Comments (1)

March 22, 2006

New and Old Ideas About Computer Science

If anyone happened to ask me, I would say that the biggest problem we face in all of computer science education right now is addressing misconceptions many people hold about our discipline, both as an educational endeavor and as a career path. Recently, however, I am beginning to see efforts by respected computer scientists to address this challenge head-on.

In an effort to address the misconception that computer science is programming, Jeannette Wing, the head of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University has taken on the thorny issue of what computer science is and is not.

In a recent issue of the Communications of the ACM (March 2006, 49(3), pp.33-35), Wing puts forth the opinion that computer science is really the study of computational thinking (what can be computed and how to compute it) and that computational thinking is a fundamental skill, not just for computer scientists, but for everyone because it involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior.

Computational thinking, Wing argues, has the following characteristics:
* It is about conceptualizing, not about programming
* It is about how humans solve problems with the aid of computing devices
* It draws on both mathematical and engineering thinking to build systems that function in the real world
* It is about ideas that touch everyone's lives
* It is everywhere

When we think about computer science in this way, the realm of possibilities for doing interesting and important work is shown to be limitless and the idea that computer science is sitting in a cubicle all day worrying about 1 and 0s is suddenly shown to be, as one student said to me, "so ago".

Posted by cstephenson at 12:16 PM | Comments (1)

March 17, 2006

Working More Effectively Together

If our experience at the recent SIGCSE Conference in Houston is any indication, we are on the verge of a major positive shift in the relations between K-12 computer science educators and our colleagues at the college level.

To be honest, relations between high school and post-secondary computer science educators have always been a little fractious. University folks have bemoaned the fact that students coming into their classes are not adequately prepared for the rigor of the discipline at the college level, and high school teachers have complained that the university folks have no idea of the environment in which K-12 people teach or their desperate need for information and support.

Over the past few years, however, there has been something of a sea change. More and more colleges and universities have established outreach programs to the high schools, providing teachers with much-needed opportunities for professional development and mentoring. The success of CSTA's JETT program (over 60 workshops held nation-wide) and the booming interest in our TECS workshops are also proof of the willingness of colleges and universities to step in and step up, using their own resources to build bridges and support community.

On March 3, Robb Cutler (CSTA Chair) and I had the opportunity to give the plenary session at ACM's SIGCSE Conference. Our goal was to provide our post-secondary colleagues with a better understanding of the challenges that K-12 teachers face, and to suggest new and improved ways that we can work together to address the issues confronting computer science education along the pipeline.

The fact that SIGCSE so generously allotted us a major session at this highly respected conference is, in and of itself, indicative of not just a shift of consciousness among post-secondary educators, but a major pledge of support for CSTA's efforts to promote and support computer science education in K-12.

The response to this session has also opened our eyes to the incredible potential of stronger ties and real partnerships between CSTA and organizations that have long supported post-secondary computer science education. A number of ACM's SIGs have offered to work more closely with us on key issues. Some pretty important people have also come forward to volunteer their time and expertise.

Our task now is to find ways to harness their incredible abilities in support of our common goals. The issues that we share all along the educational pipeline are complex and challenging, but this growing realization of our common interests and goals and, more importantly, this commitment to working in harmony rather than in isolation, are important and exciting.

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 02:21 PM | Comments (1)

March 16, 2006

Computer Science for all Students?!

We have known for hundreds of years that chemistry provides the building blocks of our world. Pick up the item nearest to you and you will find that it was made with chemistry.

Computer science provides the building blocks of our increasingly technological world. After you put together the silica, etch it with acids, and treat it with other chemicals, you use computer science to make it do cool things. Where would my daily run be without my mp3 player? Where would my friendships across the country be without the wonder of free wireless internet at the local cafe? These were made with computer science.

Introductory chemistry is (fairly) straightforward; as a society we believe chemistry is valuable for students to understand. Of course we don't expect all our students to become chemists, but we want adults in our society to know about chemistry in order to be competent individuals who can cook, use common household products safely, and make informed voting decisions. It isn't until the second year in college with organic chem that it becomes an intensely challenging "weed out" course. And it isn't until medical school that we truly force our students into intensely challenging conditions, in part because "that is the way we have always done it."

Why is it, then, that computer science has adopted an attitude more like medical school than introductory chemistry? Why don't we provide an accessible and fun introductory course that gives students the building blocks of the discipline? It seems that we teachers have the attitude that the way we learned computer science was through programming, and it was hard, and that is how we should teach.

I would like to see a new model, one where computer science is accessible to all students, where it is a standard part of the core curriculum, and where it is fun! This is part of why I am so excited about the Level 2 curriculum outline and the whole ACM Model Curriculum for K12 Computer Science. But it will take more than the new curriculum - teachers have to use fun tools and games like Sudoku and role play to engage students. We can make computer science accessible without dumbing it down if we just try.

Michelle Hutton
CSTA Equity Chair
Girls' Middle School

Posted by cstephenson at 02:38 PM | Comments (2)