How long will it be before computer programming is as much a part of the school curriculum as reading and math?
For the people gathered last weekend at the South Carolina Summit on Computing Education, held at the IT-oLogy Building in downtown Columbia, it can’t happen soon enough.
First of all, it’s a vital part of the career options of the 21st Century.
“In the K-12 environment,” said IT-oLogy President Lonnie Emard, “the educational system has not been geared up, with faculty prepared and with curriculum prepared, to drive where these jobs really are today.”
For people advocating a national computer science curriculum, the immediate goals focus on making sure computing classes count toward university admission and high school graduation, and getting teacher certification in computer science.
Advocates are also quick to point out that programming has quickly become part of the skill set in any number of traditional jobs.
“For every professional software developer,” said Mark Guzdial, from the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, “there are nine more people that are going to program, but don’t know it yet.”
He cites the example of graphic designers or architects, who may find themselves struggling professionally without programming skills. Military personnel, likewise, will need to become increasingly aware of how programming affects modern defense and espionage.
Guzdial cites the example of West Point.
“Why do they make all of their cadets learn programming? Because one of the things we teach is how you can hide sounds in pictures, how you can hide text inside of pictures, or hide text inside of sounds,” he says.
Duncan A. Buell, a professor in USC’s Computer Science & Engineering Department, suggested that knowing computer science is also a critical thinking tool.
“To really understand what programming is,” he says, means knowing “how to break problems down and how to think about solving problems. It’s not where you put the semicolon. It’s the analysis of the problem to be able to design a computer program. That’s the important educational lesson.”
The United States falls far behind many other countries — such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Israel — in adopting a computer science curriculum, Guzdial said.
According to Buell, South Carolina is at a fairly normal level for the country, which is not very good.
“The biggest problem in computing education nationally,” he said, “is the misperception that using computer software like Microsoft Office is the same as computer science. Using the computer tools is not the same as being the producer of such tools.”
Guzdial said that in Georgia he has regularly faced school principals who say computer science teachers aren’t necessary because students aren’t interested.
“Well, maybe because you don’t have a computer science teacher, your kids aren’t going into computer science.”
“I think the biggest problem,” Buell said, “is that computer science at present doesn’t really count. Given that it’s an elective, the principals, the administrators are saying ‘We need the numbers, we need to fill classes,’ because otherwise it’s a zero-sum game with limited resources, and they will teach something else.”
Chapin High School teacher Brantley Brinkley knows that all too well.
For now, she said she has very motivated students in her own computer science classes, but her classes are small, “and numbers dictate classes surviving.”
Marketing the class, and getting others to join, becomes all-important.
“I have a principal that’s very supportive,” she said, “I have a district that is somewhat supportive in the confines of ‘You have to have this many students that are registered for it to make it a viable class.’”
Melissa Epps said students in her classes at Lakewood High School in Sumter are very excited by the possibilities in programming, such as game design.
Tom Anderson, who teaches computer repair and upgrade at Heywood Career and Technology Center in Columbia, said a computing curriculum could expand the horizons of his students.
“I’m trying to get them to think outside of a 20-block radius, and try to think globally, so they can create greater economic opportunity for themselves in the future.”
For many, knowing computer programming has also increasingly become a matter of self-determination and freedom. Buell cites Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed, which breaks the world into two groups: those who write the programs and those who follow them.
Deep within so much of the software we use every day, he said, decisions are made that affect our lives — from how often to press a button to how to access money from a credit card.
“This stuff is buried in the software, and if you don’t understand how those decisions get made, you’re going to be one of those people who gets told how to live your life because of what the software does.”
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