Julia Steiny: At Last! A Computer Science Course for All Kids

by Julia Steiny

The classroom reverberates with a lot of boom, bang, thwring, crash!  When the door opens, kids seem to be watching a big-screen video game.  Their 8th-grade computer-science teacher, Patrick Culliname, slips out, quickly shutting the door against the noise.

His students are a little fried from completing their final projects using HTML and javascript — common fare at the Advanced Academy of Math and Science (AMSA).  So Culliname is taking it easy with a movie, TRON, that re-enforces prior knowledge.

Julia Steiny

Oh, c’mon, “re-enforces prior knowledge” with a video-game war movie?  Lincoln, maybe.  October Sky, if you want to stay sciencey, but TRON?

Actually a real-life computer geek wrote the 1982′s TRON, which features characters using real computer terms instead of sci-fi babble. The story’s hero is broken down into a data stream so he can enter a computer to chase and defeat a nefarious software pirate.  The movie memorably reiterates the terms, even as kids scoff at the antiquated special-effects.

And if not TRON, what?  The few schools that do teach computer science (CS) cobble together free software, relevant books and movies, to create curricula the way birds build nests — with any sturdy materials they can find.

For the record, Russia, India and Israel, among other countries, already have CS across the grades in their schools.  Talk about leaving U.S. children behind!

Insane though it sounds, no nationally-vetted introductory course existed until now.  While only published in 2010, Exploring Computer Science (ECS) is going viral.

I asked the curriculum’s co-author, Gail Chapman, what took American schools so long.  She said:  “There are plenty of places that offer resources — as if teachers have time to research how to integrate CS into their courses.  Our group spent years probing and choosing certain materials.  Nothing in our curriculum is original, but the sequence and strategy was designed to capture the interest of girls and minorities.”

Originally funded by the National Science Foundation — who else? — ECS grew out of the work of the Computer Science Equity Alliance (CSEA), a group determined to democratize the skills that are now the gateway into the 21st century economy.  (I told their story last week.)

AMSA’s Kelly Powers is a CSEA chapter head for the state of Massachusetts.  Even though her own school already has CS for grades 6-11, she too is passionate about closing the stark equity gap for young people under-represented in the field of computer science.

Chapman experimented extensively with using materials — like TRON — to teach in low-income Los Angeles schools.  “Because kids are on devices all the time, we assume they know what computer science is.  They don’t.”

And computers have a way of making people feel stupid, a super turn-off.

“We got together a group from colleges and high schools to identify the right topics.  No one had ever done anything like this.  We had input and ideas, but we were starting from scratch.”  Building that bird’s nest.

So ECS begins hands off the keyboard, just talking.  “We ask what kind of knowledge kids bring to the table.  Every kid brings something.  We don’t assume any prior knowledge of computer science.  But we can talk about how computers get used in a variety of settings.  About privacy and problem-solving skills.”

I notice the curriculum, which is up online in its entirety, spends a full two weeks exploring “What is intelligence?”  Good question.  Then, with hands on the keyboard, the course goes on to such topics as algorithms and abstraction, and the connections between math and CS.

Chapman says, “Really, there’s nothing else out there you can just pick up.  The online curriculum does have everything, including daily, 55-minute lesson plans, designed for traditional high schools.  Although, we think the course is more effective when teachers also have the professional development we offer.”

So why isn’t CS in every secondary school?

Chapman sighs and concedes that the biggest remaining problem is determining what a computer-science course could displace.  English?  History?  Afterschool sports and clubs?  It’s a hard question that must be answered.  AMSA solves the problem with a weird schedule and a longer day, typical of charter schools.

The NSF hopes every high school will teach this course or some other like it so all kids are exposed to the subject.  They believe that computer science should count as a science credit or combined math and science.

Currently the course is taught in the cities of L.A., Santa Clara, and Washington DC, and in Utah, Oregon, and Maryland.

And coming soon, Massachusetts.  At a big business-tech meeting, Kelly Powers had the opportunity to press Governor Deval Patrick to commit to making computer science a high school graduation requirement.

With little hesitation, he said yes.

Good answer.  Let’s see if and how it plays out in MA.

The Exploratory course is not the be-all, end-all, but it’s a concrete and long-overdue start.  Gail Chapman welcomes questions and would love to share the work.  Contact her at:  chapgail@gmail.com.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.