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Beginning to Rethink CS Education at NSF

By Cameron Wilson

The President released his $3.8 trillion budget on Monday setting off a flurry of activity in the Nation's Capital. The budget sets the Administration's priorities for the big stuff, like how much he wants to spend on education and defense, down the minutia, like how much money the Department of Agriculture wants to spend on slug research. (Ok, I made that program up.) Budget season also gives agencies the opportunity to unveil changes to existing programs or the creation of new ones.

One such change, that quickly made its way around the computing community, was a rethinking about how the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Directorate (CISE) at the National Science Foundation approaches education and workforce programs. More specifically, CISE staff announced that it was combining the Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education (CPATH) and the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) programs into a broader computing education program. CPATH tended to focus on higher education, while BPC issued grants for the entire pipeline, largely focused on improving diversity in computing. These two programs have funded numerous education proposals including the current work to reform the Advanced Placement Computer Science course, the Exploring Computer Science course developed in LA, and national alliances focused on diversity.

I had a chance to talk about the new program with NSF staff. I should caveat this that no one really knows what the program will look like until the new solicitation is out (more on that below), so this is my fairly high-level take.

The described intent is to evolve CISE's work into something broader. That is the new program would look at the entire pipeline but with special focus in two areas:

  • moving earlier into the pipeline with specific engagements in middle/high school to bring computational thinking/computer science concepts into this space
  • widening the program to be inclusive for all populations, built around a theme that "computing is for everyone"

It would also add a specific education research component that would seek to build education research capacity at the university level and to provide a greater understanding of how children come to understand computing concepts. At the center of this new program would be some big ideas in K-12 education that BPC has forwarded in recent years -- including reform of AP Computer Science and the so-called CS 10K project. Assistant Associate Director of CISE Deborah Crawford posted the following on a post about this topic Mark Guzdial's blog:

"In the summer of 2010, CISE plans to release a new broadly-scoped solicitation that will incorporate the most promising components/promising practices of the CPATH and BPC programs, with increased focus on middle and high school education in computing (making its scope consistent with the CS AP and the CS 10K projects, so no need for Mark to worry there) and education research. Like the BPC and CPATH programs, the new program is likely to draw on partnerships among academic institutions, as well as other organizations similarly committed to ensuring broad participation in the computing disciplines and to more effective computing education."

There are still challenging issues around the level of focus that the program may have on diversity efforts that are causing concern within the community. These are details that will have to be worked out as the program moves forward.

In the past few years, the computing community has recognized the tremendous challenges that face computer science education in the K-12 level. This helps explain why there is so much energy around projects like AP CS reform and CS 10K. Yet, despite the obvious need, there is little funding for this type of work across NSF. It appears that CISE is going to step into this gap with a new program focused on the big ideas and add a much-needed research component to inform the overall education and workforce goals.

But it will likely be a small step until the community can start leveraging other parts of NSF. One potential for this new program is leveraging funding from the Education and Human Resources Directorate at NSF, which has about $800 million dedicated to education and workforce programs. Tapping into this resource could bring major resources for reform to the table.

This is a fairly significant transformation of what -- at the federal agency level -- is the only game in town when it comes to systemic computer science education funding. It will be very interesting to see what the summer solicitation brings. Hopefully the community will work together in helping shape a very strong program.

Author's Note: I got one e-mail this week confusing this new program with another new initiative in the budget called Cyber-Learning to Transform Education (CTE). These are distinct programs with CTE being focused on using computing to transform education generally. Funding from CPATH and BPC is not being redirected into CTE.

Cameron Wilson
ACM Director of Public Policy


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