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What's Our "Brand"? Do We Need a New Promotional Plan?

Almost every day I receive electronic newsletters with articles discussing STEM and robotics competitions, but I rarely see a mention of Computer Science. So, my business administration mentality has caused me to wonder, "Do we have an image problem in CS?" Why am I not reading about Computer Science on a daily basis? Do we need a new promotional plan? What is our CS "brand"?

In yesterday's ACTE Career Tech Update, the leading article was titled Computer Science Education Declining in K-12 Classrooms, Study Finds:

Computerworld (1/11, Betts) reports: "Computer technology may drive the US economy, but computer science education is absent in most American K-12 classrooms, according to a report by the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer Science Teachers Association." According to the study, "the number of secondary schools offering introductory computer science courses dropped 17% from 2005 to 2009, and the number offering Advanced Placement computer science courses dropped 35% in that time period." Co-author Mark Stehlik, an assistant dean at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science, said, "Some states and some schools are offering some really excellent courses. But overall, the picture is pretty bleak."

How sad! And yet, I know all too well that our enrollment in Computer Science at the secondary level has been declining. I recall how intrigued I was when I took my first computing course (many, many years ago) and how that course held my interest and was much more engaging that my math courses. Why are today's students not intrigued with computing? What can we do to recruit more students into Computer Science? Those of us who work with Computer Science on a daily basis know the importance of students studying CS. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both know the importance of students studying CS. Business and Industry leaders know the importance of students studying CS. Maybe we do need a new promotional plan, a new image, a new brand.

An article in the ACM Tech News in November highlighted a DARPA funded project designed to "spark" Computer Science Education:

DARPA-Funded Project to Spark Computer Science Education
eSchool News (11/04/10) Jenna Zwang

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently awarded TopCoder a contract to develop a virtual community featuring competitions and educational resources in order to boost computer science education and help middle and high school students improve their science, technology, engineering, and math skills. DARPA's Melanie Dumas says the virtual community is needed to help reverse the decline in the number of students pursuing computer science degrees, including a 70-percent reduction since 2001. "We've seen staggeringly disappointing results as far as the U.S. population is concerned, both in terms of participation and then, once they do participate, their actual performance," says TopCoder's Robert Hughes. TopCoder will construct a virtual community focused on computer science activities, including logic puzzles and games. "The intent isn't necessarily to improve the quality of education that's out there right now, but more to attract and then retain students in computer science," Hughes says. He hopes the project also will help get students interested in computer science jobs. "The lack of qualified technologists has really driven the prices [of hiring] to almost a prohibitive level, where new technology development is almost prohibitive because of the cost," Hughes says.

Certainly, the proposed virtual community should interest (and maybe even intrigue) potential Computer Science students. Reaching those students at the middle school and high school level is a good strategy. Maybe if students can associate virtual communities with CS, they will study CS in droves.

Another article in a December issue of the ACM Tech News was titled "Inspiring the Next Bill Gates". Now, that is a noble aspiration for a high school teacher! Interesting high school boys in debugging computer games is certainly a great hook to convince them to study CS.

Live Online Briefing: Inspiring the Next Bill Gates
National Science Foundation (12/03/10)

The U.S. National Science Foundation will host a Webcast on Dec. 7 at 12 noon (EST) featuring Georgia Tech's Amy Bruckman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Leah Buechley, and ACM's Cameron Wilson, as part of the federally sponsored Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), which takes place Dec. 5-11. The Webcast will include demonstrations and suggestions on how to improve K-12 computer science education. Georgia Tech students will help Bruckman describe GLITCH, a program that enlists high school boys to debug computer games in an effort to inspire them to pursue computer science. Meanwhile, Buechley will show how E-Textiles has encouraged young girls to learn computational skills. The U.S. Congress created CSEdWeek to highlight the importance of computer science education and the need to improve technology education at the K-12 level.

Possibly students just don't realize what they can DO with Computer Science. CS is so varied, students probably do not realize the ubiquitous nature of the discipline (our brand again). We really need to work on that brand, that image, that promotional plan. We need to help our students see what the possibilities are with CS. Happily, another article in a December ACM Tech News noted the surge in enrollment in CS courses at the collegiate level:

Schools See Surge in Computer Science Classes
Poughkeepsie Journal (NY) (12/05/10) Sarah Bradshaw

Many colleges saw significant growth in computer science enrollment this fall compared to three years ago, demonstrating the growing importance of technology education among young people. "I think the students are aware that they have it in their power to be the next Bill Gates if they come up with something really great," says Andrew Pletch, chairman of the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz's computer science department. SUNY New Paltz experienced a 53 percent increase in computer science majors since last spring. At Dutchess Community College, enrollment is up 43 percent in computer information management, 40 percent in computer certificate programs, 10 percent in computer science, and six percent in computer information systems. Many students think that information technology opens up employment opportunities, notes Dutchess' Frank Whittle. Professors also attribute the ability to specialize in specific areas of interest in computer science as a big factor in their programs' success. This fall Vassar College had 134 students sign up for at least one computer science class, and many of those students were taking additional classes, even though they are pursuing a different major, notes Vassar's Jeff Kosmacher.

Apparently students realized that CS would in fact open up employment opportunities for them. Others liked being able to specialize in areas of specific interest to them. Maybe it is all of the above.

Whatever works is what we need to do to interest students in studying CS. We can't start too early. Elementary students can be taught computing. Middle school and high school students must develop an interest in computing. I recently read an article in the ASCD SmartBrief that asked if playing a musical instrument improved cognitive ability. Well, we know that studying Computer Science improves cognitive ability. Maybe we need to emphasize that. Let's make that, along with so many other highlights, part of our image or brand and certainly include that in our promotional plan. We can have a brand every bit as successful as STEM.

Deborah Seeehorn
CSTA Board of Directors

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