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Critical Questions for CS Education Research

This weekend CSTA Chair Deborah Seehorn and I were attending the ACM Education Council meetings and, as part of the meeting, we participated in a group discussion about critical questions in computer science education research led by CSTA Past Chair Steve Cooper.

Our discussion group consisted of Deborah Seehorn from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Steve Cooper from Stanford University, Dan Garcia from Berkeley, and myself. Because we all have deep roots in K-12 computer science education, the list of questions we came up with covered a breadth of issues and reflect the deep need for research-grounded solutions to the issues we now face.

Here is our list:

  • What are the indicators of incoming student success in introductory level computer science in colleges and universities?
  • Does computer science learning in high schools contribute to success/improvement in other disciplines, especially mathematics and science?
  • What is the link between age/educational development and the potential to learn and master computer science concepts?
  • Are there issues of ergonomics in the introduction of computing devices with young children?
  • Is there a link between previous math learning and success in computer science at the high school level?
  • What are the major factors that lead to students making early choices not to pursue computer science?
  • What is the role of informal education programs in scaffolding learning in computer science, especially in communities where access to computer science learning in school is limited?
  • What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of MOOCs in middle school and high school student learning?
  • What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of MOOCs for the professional development of computer science teachers?
  • What models professional development are most effective for improving teacher mastery of computer science concepts and pedagogy?
  • What are the impacts of current efforts to market computer science to students?
  • To what extent do poverty and lack of home access to computer science tools impact computer science performance and or interest in school?
  • Do one-to-one devices per child programs have any impact on computer science interest or performance?
  • What are the major factors in computer science teacher retention?
  • What is required to increase the availability of teacher preparation programs for computer science teachers?
  • What is the impact of transitioning the the content of teacher preparation courses in "educational technology/AV" to a focus on computational thinking across STEM?
  • What is the ideal balance between content knowledge learning and pedagogical learning in computer science teacher preparation and alternative certifications?
  • Do hybrid programs (educators and volunteer partnerships) improve student access to rigorous computer science courses and increase the pool of well-prepared computer science teachers?
  • Which of these do you think is most important?

    And what have we missed?

    Chris Stephenson
    CSTA Executive Director


    I am a computer science/mathematics teacher at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL. I am also pursuing a PhD in mathematics education part-time at Illinois Institute of Technology. Currently, I am working on developing questions for my Qualifying Exam. I would like to include a computer science component (or maybe even make it the focus) in my research. I am only just beginning my quest and I was wondering if anyone out there has an opinion about research papers that I absolutely need to read or maybe just some good archival sites that I need to know about. I couldn't believe my luck to find this list that you've made up here. I think I want to start to get in on the dialogue.

    Take a look at what has happened to toys over the past 20 years or so. Open-play toys, like Legos, have become increasingly specialized.

    Where are the open-play apps for computers? In the 1980s, those were the built-in programming environments that made it easy to tinker and let your imagination run wild. Now, on tablets, all you can really do is download pre-built, one-size apps.

    Is the lack of easily accessible development environments having an impact on computer science interest?

    The two main questions I would ask before any of these are:

    1. What is the most powerful conception of "computer science" that we could imagine and then figure out how to teach?

    2. What are the "developmentally best" versions of these ideas (cf Papert, and Bruner) for each developmental level from K-12?

    The first question addresses the weak and inadequate characterizations of computing in the current reform attempts. In a field that is still inventing itself (and whose current state is not well developed) we need to "teach for learning and change" to help bring our field to the better states it needs to assume in the 21st century.

    The second re-asks the serious questions that Papert asked about mathematics and computing (and that Bruner asked about learning and teaching in general). The basic idea is that what is actually important about a field should not be removed in a child's version, but an intellectually honest child's version may require new inventions to serve both the needs of the subject and the child. The first question has to be partially well answered before the second one can be addressed at the level needed.

    I make these comments because I take the term "education" seriously, and think of it as being more than just vocational training that addresses perceived needs by employers.

    How do we define "computer science"? From the context in the questions it looks like CS and programming are being use interchangeability. Is this the intent. If it is, fine. If it is not, not so fine. My question always is "What is CS at the high school level?"

    One additional question:
    What are the best model(s) for connecting and supporting high school computing teachers given the usual state of isolation?

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