Putting the Fun in Computer Science Fundamentals

Susan Hall

At my son's high school scheduling night recently, when he came to a class called "computer applications," his response was, "boooooring." This from a kid who could stay on YouTube all day.


Luckily, the state of Kentucky has the good sense to require it-at least that one class-and the school's scheduling brochure states that those who have completed IC3 certification can choose a more challenging technology class. I wish it required more.


At the same time, Intellect, the trade body for the UK's tech sector, is calling on that government to revamp its national requirements to focus on "higher-value computer science skills."


An article at silicon.com on a recent forum on digital skills concludes that students and teachers are "bored rigid" with the current curriculum. In addition, it says, the curriculum doesn't arm students with the skills that businesses need. The trade body argues that the curriculum focuses too much on teaching students how to use specific software programs rather than on more advanced computing skills. And it wants to see technology such as multimedia used across every subject.


It quotes Dr. Sue Black, a senior research associate with the software systems engineering group at University College London, whose own daughters found the tech curriculum less than inspiring. Says Black:

Programming concepts can be taught from age five or earlier. [Computer science] should be a fundamental subject along with maths and English. The future UK economic viability is at stake here.

There's similar gnashing of teeth about computer education-or lack of-in the United States. A report issued last fall found "scant" computer science education in most elementary and secondary school classrooms and the number of Advanced Placement courses in computer science has declined in the past five years. And we wonder why we're not producing the computer scientists and engineers that our country needs?


The National Science Foundation and the College Board are busy working out a new high school advanced placement computer science course. According to the CCC Blog, it "is designed to expose students to computer science as a creative and intellectually rich endeavor that has an impact on society." Pilot programs at high schools are being set up for next year.


Considering that companies increasingly are using games for training and all sorts of other tasks-Gartner has predicted that more than 70 percent of the world's 2,000 largest companies will use games in one way or another by 2014-you'd think the subject could be taught in a way that would mesmerize students. (My son has expressed interest in creating his own video games.)


That's the tactic taken by Microsoft programmers who are teaching in Seattle-area schools. This story from the Issaquah Press, the newspaper of a nearby suburb, reports that in 2010, only 275 high school students in Washington state took the AP Computer Science exam. And yet these kids are surrounded by techies working at Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Google, Adobe and Facebook.


A program known as TEALS-Technology, Education & Literacy in Schools-gives the programmers a crash course in teaching and the schools a wealth of real-world experience.

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