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November 27, 2010

Maybe Course Proliferation Is a Bad Idea?

I was prompted after the last CSTA board meeting to write the following, which has now turned into a blog post.

My basic question is whether we are doing ourselves any favors by going for a variety of and proliferation of different courses in computer science.

My conclusion, of course, is that it's a bad idea, or else I would have phrased the title question differently and would have started this out differently.

At the university level, where I teach, the usual term for the course I'm talking about is "CS0", because that's the way it was put many years ago by ACM in the definition of the standard curriculum. CS1 and CS2 are the first two courses in the major; CS0 is the non-majors course that many of us believe should be taken by all students as part of general education requirements.

I would argue that there are two basic reasons for a CS0-like course.
* Because there is general purpose computer science subject matter that all students should learn in order to function effectively as citizens in modern society.
* Because students who study a CS0 course might well want to take more computer science either as majors or minors, and the job predictions and national interests say that more majors and minors is a good thing.

Both of these are laudable goals.

The first question that arises, then, is the extent to which argument 1 is accepted by those in positions of power in the school systems. Given the Running on Empty report and what we all know to be true, the answer is: not much. For the most part, the education world doesn't accept the contention that all students should study some basic computer science.

If reason 1 isn't accepted, we don't ever get a chance to argue reason 2.

So let's look at CS0 as defined by and supported by CSTA and ACM. By my count, we have at least four different statements of what could be, at the high school level, the CS0-like material that "everyone" ought to know.
* The Level 2 standard of CSTA;
* Exploring Computer Science;
* The new AP CS Principles course.
*CS0 as a university course defined by the standards of the professional organizations;

I look at all of these as being sufficiently similar that if we could get any one of them accepted on a mass scale, we would be very much farther ahead than we are now. No, if we had only one such course accepted, we would not be able to accommodate all possible students and interests. But if we are starting from zero (or nearly zero), then yes, getting to 50% is a win. If we are starting from zero, and we cannot make the case for any change whatsoever, then we aren't getting a win.

In addition to the CS0 courses that are not intended as part of a computer science undergraduate major, there is a plethora of courses that could be considered to be CS1, the first course in the major:
* Visual Basic;
* C++;
* Python;
* Java;
* AP Computer Science;
* and then there are other courses in Alice, and Scratch, and so on.

My arguments are fairly simple.
* The issue of getting CS into K-12 is not an intellectual issue of content, but rather a marketing issue (distinguishing real computer science from the use of computer applications; and making it clear that real computer science has serious value) and a logistics issue (displacing other desiderata in a world of scarce resources and a scattered and distributed world of largely public education).
* We have not been successful so far in convincing the bureaucracy that CS is really "there". I would maintain that if we cannot be coherent in our message about what real computer science is and how it should be taught, we will be unable to convince administrators that it is necessary.
* We do damage to our position by offering a plethora of CS0 options, because what we are doing is asking the school administrators to become the experts in computer science education in order to know what is best for their schools. We are the experts, not they. Their past position has been "no". If we require them first to become experts, we won't ever get them to "yes".
* We cannot lament the isolation felt by K-12 CS teachers if we contribute to that isolation. It has been said many times that the infrastructure costs (time, hardware, software, re-tooling, professional development, etc.) are much higher for CS than for other disciplines. By promoting five different courses, each of which requires PD, software, etc., we are creating a situation in which we need to be five times as successful (in terms of numbers) as other disciplines, in getting into the schools with teachers and classes, in order to generate the same sizes of teacher communities. Yes, we know that once one learns Spanish and French, Italian isn't all that hard, and once VB and Alice are mastered then Java can be dealt with. But we are at the zero to one step, not the two to three step, and that first step is a lot higher than the rest.

That which gets us closer to a general acceptance of argument 1 is a good thing.
That which doesn't get us closer is not a good thing.

A plethora of general courses increases costs, isolation, PD needs, ..., and makes us look like True Believer fanatics instead of professionals with an established discipline.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 02:41 PM | Comments (1)

November 22, 2010

Program or be Programmed

I just completed Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Program or be Programmed, and found it an interesting read. He is a well-known author, having written several books on new media and popular culture. He writes in a style that is understandable to "non-techies."

In this book, he identifies "10 commands" with respect to the digital age, clearly a play on the Judeo-Christian notion of 10 commandments. I found it interesting that many related to what Fred Brooks identified in his classic article No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering as essential conceptual constructs in software engineering.

Brooks' must-read article (a copy of which can easily be found by Googling 'Brooks "No Silver Bullet") identifies four essential difficulties with learning to build software: complexity, conformity, changeability, and invisibility. Brooks, widely regarded as the "father of software engineering", argues that there is no Silver Bullet (with obvious reference to the folklore beliefs of how to kill werewolves) with which to kill all that plagues poor software projects. And Rushkoff, likely unaware of Brooks' classic article (as it does not appear within his bibliography), builds several of his commands around these four "essences" of software engineering.

Rushkoff's most interesting command (at least to me) was his tenth: arguing that everyone needs to know how to program. Rushkoff divides the world into 10 types of people: those who can program and those who cannot (the bad binary joke is mine). He argues that those who cannot program, will themselves be programmed by their computers. And while he argues simply that this is bad (with a chapter full of reasons why), this command got me thinking about the possible implications for "computational thinking" in K-12. While programming does appear as one of the 7 Big Ideas of the NSF-funded AP-CS principles group (http://csprinciples.org/bigideas.php), it is not clear that the authors expect that programming is intended for all -- they are simply creating a series of pilot courses built around these 7 Big Ideas that will possibly become a new AP CS course. I am left thinking about several questions:

1) Should programming be a key component of "computational thinking" skills (whatever these should mean) in K-12?

2) Are programming skills, or for that matter any skills, the right way to think about what "computational thinking" should mean?

3) How might anything done with respect to programming in a high or middle school programming class (offered to all students) have any impact on students' lives if there were no reinforcement in other classes, or in other activities with which they are involved?

Steve Cooper
CSTA Vice President

Posted by cstephenson at 11:42 AM | Comments (1)

November 18, 2010

Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship

Many years ago I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting Anita Borg and, although I did not realize it at that time, she had a tremendous impact on my career and my life. This is why I am truly delighted to share information about a scholarship program created in her name.

Dr. Anita Borg (1949-2003) devoted her life to revolutionizing the way we think about technology and dismantling the barriers that keep women and minorities from entering the computing and technology fields. In honor of Anita's vision, Google has announced the 2011 Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship for First Years, awarding a group of female students each a $10,000 scholarship for the 2011-2012 academic year. All scholarship recipients will also be invited to attend the FUSE Networking Retreat at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA in 2012.

Who Should Apply?

Applicants must be female high school seniors and meet the following eligibility criteria:

* Intend to be enrolled in or accepted as a full-time student at a university in the U.S. for the 2011-2012 academic year
* Intend to be enrolled in or accepted for enrollment in a baccalaureate Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Software Engineering or related program
* Able to demonstrate a commitment to and passion for computer science and technology

For complete details, please visit Google a:


Deadline to apply: Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Questions? Email Google at:


You can also visit


for more information about Google's scholarship programs.

Chris Stephenson
CSTA Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 06:14 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2010

Meeting Grace Hopper

I recently attended the 2010 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. I had gone mainly to attend the K-12 Computing Teachers Workshop, but got a chance on October 1 to see some of the main conference events. It was certainly interesting being one of the 50-100 males among the 2100 conference attendees.

While attending the conference, I remembered my meeting with Commodore Grace Hopper some 25 or so years previously. I was part of a summer program for high school kids in the DC area to intern in the physical sciences in government labs. As part of this program, we had various government speakers presenting once a week. I don't remember any of the other speakers, though I imagine they were trying to convince us to major in STEM in college and then to go to graduate school and work for the US government. But I'll never forget the day this elderly lady showed up to speak. She was not more than 4' 10" or so, and was wearing all of her military regalia on a completely white uniform. She looked too old to be active military, and I was wondering why the Navy couldn't have sent a "better" representative to talk about the importance of STEM as it relates to work being done in the Navy, or whatever it was the Navy felt they needed to tell us.

Then Commodore Hopper started talking, to a roomful of mostly white males. (In the 1980s, Chemistry and Physics had many of the problems of gender and racial imbalance that plague computing today.) She told us many of the stories for which she has since become well known, of finding the first computer "bug" to her work with early computers to what a "nano-second" was. (I didn't remember her story about nano-seconds until seeing interviews much later.) By the time she was done speaking, she had the entire room completely caught up in the excitement and importance of science and of discovery. I knew then that I would do something in STEM career-wise. (Throughout college, I was a physical chemistry major. I graduated with degrees in mathematics and chemistry, not going into CS until graduate school.)

The truth was that at the time, I had no idea how famous Commodore Hopper was. It wasn't until years later, when I had become a computer scientist, and came across a picture of her next to one of her stories that I realized it was she who had presented to our small group back in high school, and how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to have spent a couple of hours with her. I wish we still had comparable ambassadors for our discipline, to excite today's youth!

Anyway, it was a great conference (and perhaps worthy of a future blog piece), but I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on Grace Hopper nearly as much.

Stephen Cooper
CSTA Vice President

Posted by cstephenson at 05:16 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2010

Time to Get Clever?

Many dedicated and resourceful individuals have been working on inspiring the public school system to adopt a computer science friendly curriculum in grades k-12. While Google's efforts in California have begun to see some glimmer of promise, we're still left with a large portion of the country that's ill-prepared to make such an unprecedented commitment to the future of education.

With all of the budget-cuts, protocol and red-tape, how could computational thinking ever stand a chance in that ever-growing pile of educational paperwork? Instead of putting the whole cause on pause while we wait to get through the endless layers of formality, I suggest that we try resorting to some guerrilla tactics! It's time to go straight to the students to help them be prepared and eager for the changes coming their way. We can begin planting the seed for the importance and fascination of computer science before students are ever able to sign up for a CS class. But how is such a lofty and magical goal obtained? The Internet!

If we want students to seek out computers, first computers have to seek them out. We're attempting to do exactly that with Picture Me in Computing, a worldwide digital flashmob that will be taking over the most popular social networking sites on November 10th, 2010 (111010.) Picmecomp is a campaign that was started as a way of bringing computer science to girls by simultaneously overwhelming every facet of social media. Our goal is to have every technical professional and supporter of women in computer science join in by tagging all of their tweets, blogs, Picasa, Flickr and Youtube uploads with #picmecomp. If enough people participate and get their friends to participate, we should be able to reach a significant portion of today's teens, as the majority of them belong to at least one online social networking channel. The key word "picmecomp" will link the pieces of social media to picturemeincomputing.org where students can browse around and find out more about a life enhanced by computer science.

If you have a resource to contribute or if you'd like to find out more about how you can be a part of the digital flashmob this Wednesday, please visit:


Kiki Prottsman
Women in Computer Science
UO CIS Graduate Teaching Fellow
(541) 701-WICS

Posted by cstephenson at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)

November 08, 2010

Greater Boston Chapter Has Great First Meeting

Massachusetts now has a local CSTA chapter! The first meeting of the Greater Boston CSTA chapter took place on October 23. Kelly Powers and Padmaja Bandaru, the co-presidents of the chapter, along with the support of the two event sponsors, the Commonwealth Alliance for IT Education (CAITE) and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), organized an effective, motivational first meeting.

Fred Martin and Holly Yanco of UMass Lowell were invaluable in organizing the day and leading parts of the event. Steve Vinter of Google was another big supporter and participant in the meeting. The response was excellent, with forty people attending the Saturday meeting.

The morning was spent with introductions and brainstorming topics for future chapter meetings. Chinma Uche, the president of the Connecticut CSTA chapter shared her experiences with us about starting a local chapter. Attendees ate lunch together, then broke into groups for afternoon workshops. Half of the group attended a CS Unplugged workshop led by Karl Wurst of Worcester State University. The other half participated in an un-conference where eight topics were generated on the fly and groups met on those topics for half-hour periods.

It was encouraging to see such enthusiasm on the local front. It seems that every teacher in the room had been craving this sort of collaboration and networking and now, the opportunity had finally arrived. Knowing that there are organizations, universities, and corporations in our area behind our efforts and willing to help in any way they can, is inspiring and reassuring.

The next meeting will take place on November 30 in Marlboro, MA. The meeting topic will be Computer Science Education Week, which takes place December 5-11. Any teachers interested in attending, in person or virtually, can email P.Bandaru@amsacs.org for more information.

Hopefully, Massachusetts can sustain the interest and enthusiasm of this first meeting to make the local chapter a constructive and productive organization for years to come.

Karen Lang
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 10:57 AM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2010

Recruiting for My Computer Science Classes

As the budget woes continue in California, my thoughts are turning to recruiting. If a sufficient number of students do not sign-up for the two computer science classes that I usually teach, then I will no long be teaching them. At my high school, gone are the days of small classes. Three of my four classes have enrollments of 38 students which includes my AP Computer Science class.

So my thoughts are turning toward what can I do to recruit students for the computer science classes? I usually produce a slide show where I embed movies of Alice projects and Scratch projects that the students have completed during the year. I also try to incorporate an Animoto Slide Show highlighting the collages the students have created. Then I ask the math teachers on campus to show the slide show and hand out the personal invitations that I printed to students that have the prerequisites to take the class or were on the AP Potential list I receive from the Guidance Office.

This year I want to add asking the math teachers to show the videos that CSTA is developing for Computer Science Education week. I am also thinking about asking my CS students to teach others to program using Alice during our Open House/ 8th grader preview night.

I am always looking for recruiting ideas. What do you do to recruit students at your school?

Myra Deister
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 10:01 AM | Comments (2)

November 04, 2010

The Changing Face of Professional Development

We are all aware that education is constantly changing- sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. One of the items that gets caught up in this ebb and flow is professional development.

We hear from many people that school systems are no longer allowing teachers to attend conferences or workshops. Some will not even give teachers the release time to attend events even if the teacher pays for it. Additionally, time set aside during the school year for teacher in-services is dwindling and when it does exist, is usually set aside for topics that affect the entire school.

CSTA wants to help you. We value professional growth and hope you do also. But we need to know how to help you and what your needs are.

What should professional development look like in the face of the current education changes?

What does your school allow you to do for professional development?

What's required of you by your individual state to keep your licenses current?

Please help us help you by posting a few comments that will help us shape professional development offerings in the future!

Mindy Hart
Chair, CSTA Professional Development Committee

Posted by cstephenson at 01:13 PM | Comments (2)

November 02, 2010

Video Gamer: A Piece of the K-12 Pipeline

I traveled up the coast of North Carolina to a town called New Bern and had an opportunity to attend the North Carolina Art Education Association Professional Development Conference thanks to an invite from the Art Specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. My intentions were to attend a "Video Gamer" workshop on a mission to continue efforts to Build the K-12 Pipeline for students who have an interest in STEM in the district. I was seeking to assess yet another avenue to engage K-8 students, as well as marry the interest of gamers to programming in grades 9-12.

The workshop was facilitated by the founder and CEO of E-LINE Media, Michael Angst. He promoted a browser-based game entitled Gamestar Mechanic. The game taps into real world experiences in the community as well as issues and places exposed to students on a daily basis. The goal is to encourage playing, designing and sharing games. The games developed by E-LINE Media are built on leading pedagogical research in the areas of systems thinking, 21st century digital literacy skills and STEM learning. It was a great workshop that wooed the minds high school students and teachers.

President Obama launched the National STEM Video Game Challenge to promote a renewed focus on STEM. According to data released in support of this initiative playing and making video games foster the development of critical thinking and design skills, problem-solving and encourages students to pursue careers in the field of STEM.

These portals are two great opportunities for districts or organizations to join forces and assist in creating opportunities for students and continue efforts to close the gap. We must continue to implement K-12 opportunities to make the connection between the demands of the workforce, the community of teachers as well as the learners in the classrooms.

Other resources:
Games for Change
Video Games and Middle School
Computer Science Unplugged

Shemeka D. Shufford
CSTA Board Member

Posted by cstephenson at 10:55 AM | Comments (2)