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Authentic Curriculum; Authentic Assessment

By Deborah Seehorn

As I was browsing the CSTA Blog recently, I was intrigued by Joanna Goode's post on Assessment in Computer Science. Since assessment is an integral part of my job at the state level, I have long been a proponent of authentic assessment, which merely means student assessment using real-world tasks (and associated rubrics to evaluate the assessment). We have done quite a bit of work in Career and Technical Education in the authentic assessment arena. As a programming teacher, I worked to give the students those real-world assessments. After all, we are supposedly preparing students for the world of education beyond high school, and ultimately for the career world. That's were students will find those truly authentic challenges that the real world offers us. Unfortunately, we live in a high-stakes accountability world, and sometimes the focus in the classroom is on the objective (multiple-choice) summative assessments that students take at the end of the course to prove what they have learned.

My pondering about authentic assessments continued as I listened to the evening news and was dismayed by the lack of progress being made on the clean-up of the BP oil disaster just off the coast of Louisiana. I wondered how in this age of high technology in 2010, it could take so long to solve this clean up problem. Shortly thereafter, I read the article in the ACM Technews on May 26:

Researchers Race to Produce 3D Models of BP Oil Spill
Computerworld (05/26/10) Thibodeau, Patrick

The U.S. National Science Foundation recently made available an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours on the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Ranger supercomputer to study how the BP oil spill will affect coastlines. The goal is to produce a three-dimensional (3D) computer model that can forecast how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas by showing in detail what happens when it interacts with marshes, vegetation, and currents. The model "has the potential to advise and undergird many emergency management decisions that may be made along the way, particularly if a hurricane comes through the area," says University of North Carolina professor Rick Luettich. The model, called Advanced Circulation Model for Oceanic, Coastal and Estuarine Waters, can track the oil spill into the marshes and wetlands due to its fine scale resolution, says University of Texas professor Clint Dawson. The 3D modeling can show what happens to the oil at various depths and how it travels as it comes in contact with underwater surfaces. (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9177363/Researchers_race_to_produce_3D_models_of_BP_oil_spill.)

It was somehow reassuring that computer scientists were in fact working on the problem. Surely some of the university students or graduate students are working to help solve the dilemma. Hopefully we, as educators, are preparing our students to handle this type of 21st Century critical thinking problem-solving. They certainly won't develop those problem-solving skills by answering multiple choice test items. We definitely need to be continually assessing our CS and IT students using real-world assessments.

That same day, as I was reading the Career Tech Update, I came across an example of authentic, real-world assessment in the middle school:

Students Use STEM Skills to Solve Emergency Situations In NASA Simulation

N8-TV Austin, TX (5/25, Gonzalez) reported, "TV and video conferencing technology are all it takes for students at G.W. Carver Academy in Waco to work through a live simulation with NASA." The STEM-focused "e-Mission" that the students took part in "creates a real-world situation," said science teacher David Gibson, adding that in the simulation, "people's lives are at stake and so it adds a lot of meaning and purpose to it." N8-TV noted, "Those real-world situations included an erupting volcano on an inhabited island and an approaching hurricane. The NASA commander fed data for the students to analyze." N8-TV included a link to more information about the program, as well as a link to the Connect A Million Minds program, which is backed by parent company Time Warner Cable. (See news story at http://news8austin.com/content/headlines/271315/students--minds-ready-for-lift-off-with-e-mission.)

NASA does a great job of supporting education as do many of the high tech businesses and organization. Certainly a project of this sort will interest students in some sort of STEM-related course of study and career. Maybe the students will see the endless possibilities in Computer Science. What better discipline to teach innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to students than Computer Science? What better discipline to give students the authentic experiences that will engage them in school and prepare them for life in the 21st Century? Hopefully our students are being assessed with authentic assessments of some type. What methods do you use to assess your computer science students?

Deborah Seehorn
CSTA Board of Directors


If I may I would focus on the tasks and subjects students are given.

I'm very much for real world assignments. Science and practise are often too far removed. But more than that real world tasks require creative problem solving, adapting theory and methods to solve a problem. On the side of these assignments I would have students analyze what they did after the work - preferably write an essay about it.

Multiple choice test are easy for anyone with capacity for logic, but that, in my opinion, gives no real indication about students actually knowing the subject.

Now this all comes from a person with only two BAs and none of them in education. I draw only from my personal experiences at school and university and from teaching myself 3D and CG, and then teaching and tutoring others on those subjects. So have your grain of salt at hand.

I agree on value of Computer Science. And if we are to create future great thinkers, I would encourage arts on the side of science as well. Many people perform and think better when actually creating or when given this outlet and the atmosphere that supports it. I see computer science, particularly programming, as a good home for creative skills. This side of the coin could be shown better to not alienate creative people away from this subject before they can learn to enjoy it.

Niko Makela
CGmascot Character and Animation Learning Blog

I think that using technology to advance education is a great way to broaden our reach. The more classrooms and teachers are inclined towards harnessing the power of this mode of communication, the more we will see quicker exchange of ideas. It's not a matter of if it will happen, but rather, how soon.
I seriously think that using modern means of communication technology will allow us to also save costs in time and travel, while providing simpler solutions in information exchange.
Best regards,

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