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August 14, 2006

I am a computer science professor, and a mother with elementary school aged kids. I want to create a website with computer science problem solving activities at the K-5 level. Like everybody else in the field, I am worried about the leaky pipeline in CS (and lack of entry into the pipeline to begin with!).

So, I have started working at the elementary school level showing students that computer science is NOT typing, but can be fun, interesting, and worthwhile. I'm especially interested in projects like Tim Bell's Computer Science Unplugged (unplugged.canterbury.ac.nz), cited in the Appendix of A Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science from CSTA. I've also created some projects that I do. For example, to model the concept of algorithmic design, I ask students to stand up and sort themselves (by last name or anything else), then figure out the algorithm that they used to do this (elementary school kids usually use bin sort; middle schoolers usually use selection sort), then we sort by the same key, but use a different algorithm.

To model TCP/IP, I ask a group of students to write a message. Another group tears it up, numbers the parts and writes the destination. A path on the floor shows the connections and nodes and where packets can go. Other students serve as nodes that pass each packet on. When the message gets to the destination, the destination node student puts the packets together to form the message. Other examples include searching algorithms, representing binary numbers, modeling different kinds of data, and compiling code.

I am sure that many of you have lots of activities like this. I would like to collect many ideas in one place to make it easier for others to do. The repository will be for anybody who would like to go to elementary schools in the classroom or after school with a ready to go lesson plan in computer science: teachers, parents, or industry volunteers.

My background: I have worked with teachers on several teacher training projects, as a Principal Investigator and as a technology teacher in others' projects. I've worked with kids doing computer science, technology, and general science at the elementary and middle school level as a PI, as a mom, and as a community volunteer. The programs have been during the school day, in Saturday academies, in summer science camps, and after school -- in programs targeted at all students, for minorities, for poor rural students, for poor urban students, and for girls. I have also addressed attrition at the undergraduate level in my own classes attending workshops and reading computer science education literature, incorporating pairs programming, etc. I was an AP reader for computer science this year to get a better idea of high school CS. And, I have two kids whose classes I visit to try out my ideas.

I mention all these because I am not naive in thinking that elementary school teachers would love to be given computer science problems to incorporate into their curriculum, or that even if they did, all problems relating to interest in computer science would be solved. I understand that NCLB, state standards testing, and lack of preparation in computer science are all deterrents to adoption. Still, I would like to see something more than the material that ISTE has developed to support NETS, which is mostly technology-based. I've seen these programs make an impact. But it's too hard for every person to develop ideas and lessons on their own. Ideally, I'd like to use the repository as a basis for larger efforts, including teacher workshops, etc. later on.

So, this is my request: if you have activities that you would like to share, please send me a link or description in email (cs-k5-material@pcs.cnu.edu). The activities I have are mostly kinesthetic learning without the use of a computer, but other activities are fine also. If you want to view the site, CSTA will have a link to it in their searchable repository. Or, you may send me email, and I will send you the link once it is live (anticipated January 2007). Thank you!

If you have comments, suggestions, rants, advice, I would love to hear them.

Thank you.

Lynn Lambert, PhD
Associate Professor
Computer Science
Christopher Newport University
Newport News, Va

Posted by cstephenson at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

August 08, 2006

What if Alabama Led the Way?

Last week I spent a great day at the University of Alabama at Birmingham talking to computer science faculty and local high school computing teachers and administrators about working together to improve K-12 computer science education (see http://www.cis.uab.edu/programs/hsws/ for more on the workshop).

During what turned out to be a wide ranging discussion, Alabama Teacher of the Year Cameron McKinley asked some interesting questions:

"What if Alabama decided to lead the country in improving K-12 computer science education? Could this happen? What would it mean for the state and its students?"

Our discussions during the day touched on many so called "local issues". Certification for CS teachers in Alabama is a mess. As Amber Wagner explained, there is no certification for computer science, so computer science teachers have to write the praxis exam in an area that has no computer science content. This is a story I am hearing from CSTA members all across the country.

Jeff Gray of the University of Alabama at Birmingham talked about how student misconceptions about computer science as a discipline and as a career destination are driving students away from computer science at a time when companies cannot find enough qualified workers to fill the jobs available in the computing field.

And we all admitted that computer scientists in general do a terrible job of explaining our field and why it is so exciting. How many student, for example, really understand that the most exciting breakthroughs in the sciences and even in the humanities require computer science expertise? How many students are even aware that computer science makes the gadgets they love possible? Too few!

What would it take for Alabama to address these and other issues and so become a national leader in K-12 computer science education? First it would take vision and committed leadership at the highest political levels. Fortunately Alabama has "an education governor" so that is a good start. Next it would take the commitment of educators on multiple levels. The University of Alabama at Birmingham Computer Science Department is ready. The folks from the Faculties of Education are getting ready. The teachers I met are very ready.

It would take an unwavering long-term commitment to creating a state-wide computer science curriculum and providing the resources to support it. This would require a plan for on-going professional development for all teachers and a campaign to help students understand the opportunities that are available for them in the computing field. These are things that CSTA would be happy to help with.

Business and industry would have to step up, offering financial and other support. Not just the high tech companies, but the industries that hire 80% of the computer science graduates to keep them up and running, such insurance companies, banks, the auto industry, and the health care industry just to name a few.

Of course, something would have to be done to fix the certification mess. And just maybe, teachers would be paid a livable wage.

What kind of place would Alabama be if it did these things? Alabama would be a place where all students have the opportunity to acquire the computing knowledge and skills required to survive and thrive in this new global economy, Alabama's booming high-tech and medical industry would have access to the skilled workers it needs to drive innovation and economic prosperity. And a world of career opportunities would open up for this and future generations.

Wouldn't it be a great thing? I believe that it is a possible thing.

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 05:49 PM | Comments (4)