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Empowering Students to Explore By Linking CS and Writing

As part of a recent discussion on the Rebooting Computing listserv Ursula Wolz made the following important observations about how to do effective outreach to K-12. We are posting her comments here with her permission.

The College of New Jersey in partnership with Fisher Middle School in Ewing NJ is running an NSF demonstration project Broadening Participation in Computing Via Community Journalism for Middle Schoolers.

In the design of our outreach program, we looked at the relationship between "real math" and "computing." We chose to focus on writing because there was good research-based evidence (not thought experiments) that we could reach under-represented groups through writing. This was in response to assertions in the video games industry that "girls like stories and boys like games." If traditional approaches to CS appeal to the gamers (regardless of gender), then how could we engage the "storytellers" in substantive computer science? And we did indeed try to avoid "air guitar" by focusing on a particular discipline of writing that, it turns out, has methodologies and constructs that resonate with software engineering and programming. (It didn't hurt that I had a colleague in journalism who is my 'dual').

In determining our target audience, we chose middle school for some very pragmatic reasons (not the least of which is that we didn't think we could get funding for a K-6 project). We agree that "real computing" needs to start earlier than middle school, but we had to start somewhere. Kindergarten is no longer kindergarten. It is 1st grade. There is way too much pressure on the kids to learn to sit still and become "good listeners" for us to cram one more thing in that they should listen to. And now that they are tested on standards in the 2nd grade the pressure on teachers to teach to the tests has only gotten worse.

The predominance of standardized tests cause a real challenge for those of us interested in giving students a richer experience of computer science in school, raising difficult questions such as:
Do we stuff computing into the standards?
How does normative testing of content promote the joy of computing?
How do you teach to a "creativity" test?

I would hope as a community we do not pursue this path. Instead our project is looking at how we can gently and effectively empower teachers to be courageous learners themselves and model attitudes about computing and technology that inspire students to explore rather than shy away. Our project, as tiny as it is, is producing very tidy results that show that if you empower the teachers you can empower the kids. And when they are empowered they produce creative results with technology.

Whether they end up looking like the archetype of the computing fluent individual is definitely an open question. But then so is the question that perhaps by empowering those who least see themselves as "computer types" we will change the nature of who can do and wants to do computing.

Ursula Wolz
The College of New Jersey

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