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What Computer Science Means to Students

I've been thinking a lot about computer science education as it applies to my students. As the K-8 CSTA board representative and a member of the CT CSTA chapter, I'm aware of the complexities of computer science education. Unfortunately, this understanding does not always extend to my students. During a recent conversation with my 6th graders, it became clear to me that what compter science means to my students, and what it means to my colleagues, is not always the same.

Many of my students self-identify as technology experts. They believe that, when confronted with the question of what constitutes computer science, they have all the answers. "Of course," they exclaim, "computer science is social networking, surfing the web, gaming, cell phone apps and on-line shopping. Isn't it anything and everything that you can do with a computer?

It stands to reason that my students would have that impression of computer science. Elementary and middle school students grew up with computers. They are confronted with technology continuously, and as digital natives, their level of comfort with technology far exceeds that of older adults. According to the Pew Research Center's Pew Internet & American Life Project 95% of teens ages 12-17 use the internet compared to 85% of all adults. That number drops to about 60% for adults over 65. The prevalence of computer usage is equally high for children ages 5-12.

Another data point to consider is cell phone ownership. Cell phones are an integral part of kids' lives. According to the Center on Media and Child's Health, 22 percent of young children (ages 6-9), 60 percent of tweens (ages 10-14) and 84 percent of teens (ages 15-18) own a cell phone.

At the same time, computer science is the only one of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields that has actually seen a decrease in student participation over the last 20 years, from 25% of high school students to only 19%, according to a study called called Can We Fix Computer Science Education in America? published by the National Center for Education Statistics and reported on by the Center on Media and Child's Health.

The data speaks volumes. No wonder my students believe that technology and computer science are one and the same. So what is a computer science teacher to do?

In only a matter of weeks, computer science educators from across the United States will be celebrating Computer Science Education week. This annual event, held during the week of Grace Hopper's birthday (December 9, 1906), recognizes the critical role of computing in today's society. Studies have shown that K-12 education does an inadequate job of preparing students with basic computer science skills. Thankfully, the CS Ed week website contains a wealth of resources related to introducing basic computer science concepts.

One of the most engaging activities featured on the CS Ed week website, is the CS Unplugged curriculum. CS Unplugged is a collection of free learning activities that teach Computer Science through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons, and lots of running around. It is an excellent introduction for computer science concepts for elementary students. I am looking forward to utilizing this resource to teach my students a sample of basic computer science concepts (ie., binary numbers, algorithms and data compression).

By taking cues from my students, I am better equipped to address deficiencies in their understanding of computer science. Together, we will continue to explore what computer science education is and why it is so important. Computer science, and not computer literacy, underlies most of today's innovations. Noted author Douglas Rushkoff said it best:

"When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them."

Computer science education week (12/9 through 12/15), is the perfect time to join together with other CS individuals to celebrate the power of computing. Let's bring more students into the fold. Join me in celebrating the joy and beauty of computers!

Patrice Gans
CSTA K-8 Representative


I completely share the disconnect you described as to what is "computer science". Back in the 80's, my undergrad degree from Imperial College in the UK is "Computing science", which perhaps is way ahead of it's time in using that term because it is about "computing", "algorithms", "computation mathematics", as well as "computing devices" -- computers.

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