Exploring Computer Science - What’s It All About?

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill – it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs.’  Nine out of ten parents want it taught at their children’s schools.  Yet right now, only about a quarter of our K through 12 schools offer computer science.”

President Obama, 1/30/16 Address

Computer science education is heating up, and for good reason. Only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science, while 71% of all new STEM jobs are in computing, according to a study by Google Inc. & Gallup. Here in our hometown, Chicago Public Schools made history by making computer science a graduation requirement beginning with the current freshmen, the class of 2020. As a leader of a Chicago-based technology company, I welcome a stronger pipeline of future talent, and hopefully diverse talent to boot. But exposing more students to computer science before college (and as early as kindergarten) is not about my hiring needs. It not necessarily even about producing more computer science majors.

One of the primary conduits for making computer science accessible to high school students nationally is through Exploring Computer Science, an introductory course developed through a National Science Foundation funded partnership between Los Angeles Unified School District and UCLA.

The resulting curriculum is not what you might expect. Many people think computer science is about coding, but it is really about problem-solving. Even in industry, this is the case. At The Graide Network, our Chief Technology Officer often emphasizes that “code is not enough” - developers have to bring value beyond code.

“Students are much stronger in their thinking and communicating coming out of ECS.”
— Elaine Griggs, CS Teacher at Pembroke High School. Designing, Implementing, and Analyzing Computational Work, Webinar 1/25/17

In ECS, students are expected to think critically, explain themselves, and design and develop creative solutions. The skills taught in ECS are critical thinking, communication, and collaboration - 21st century skills, indeed!

“I like that the students need to write about their project - my programming students who haven't had ECS from me think it is torture to write or talk about their code/design they want and my ECS students are fantastic.”
- Nicole Reitz-Larsen, CS Teacher at West High School in Utah
Designing, Implementing, and Analyzing Computational Work, Webinar 1/25/17
“Computer Science is about problem solving, designing solutions, writing code, programming, etc. I will definitely keep this in mind once I become an educator, because computer science can be applied to pretty much any subject and having students develop those skills will help them in the future.”
- Jessica Andrew, Graider
University of Oklahoma

Diverse appeal

What is especially cool about ECS is that its bold mission is to diversify participation in computer science, particularly for girls, students of color, and those with disabilities. The precursor of ECS was research beginning in 2000 that examined the glaring underrepresentation of minority students in computer science. The results for ECS so far are encouraging, with higher representation of girls (42-45% for the last several years) and students of color (53% Latino/a, 32% African-American this school year).

"Our research is providing preliminary evidence that expansion of the ECS program into new cities is demonstrating the potential to reach students from groups underrepresented in computer science, to meet their goals, and to increase their probability that they pursue further computer science coursework.”
- Dr. Steven McGee, President, The Learning Partnership &
Research Associate Professor, Northwestern University

I am excited to see the impact of Chicago’s efforts. The district demographics are 90% minority and 80% economically disadvantaged, so the high school graduation requirement should do much for equity and access to computer science education and the jobs of the future. This is the sixth school year the ECS course has been offered in CPS. Next year, hopefully all high schools will have ECS or another computer science course available to students.

The Advanced Placement Computer Science courses have been offered since the 1980s, but they have not been very successful at attracting diverse student participation. In fact, the College Board reports that the AP Computer Science A exam has the least diverse test-takers of all AP exams. Only 22% of of the 46,344 computer science test-takers were girls in 2015 (vs. 56% across all AP course exams). Worse, only 13% identified as African-American or Latino, (vs. 24% across all AP course exams). A new course, AP Computer Science Principles was introduced last fall precisely to engage a broader audience.

The purpose of ECS assessments

The need to use assessment evidence is especially important for ECS, because this course is often the first opportunity to engage students who are traditionally underrepresented in computer science. The benchmark exams provide critical data on student growth, guide teachers’ instructional planning, and help answer important research questions including about the impact of professional development for teachers and exposure to computer science in K-8 for students.

The cumulative assessment for the ECS course is ambitious. It is intentionally NOT about fact recall or even providing inputs and predicting outputs. Instead, as the CS for All Teachers site explains, “students should demonstrate ‘ways of being and doing’ when learning and exhibiting computer science knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” Similarly, the assessment design mirrors the inquiry-based learning model used in the course. It’s a tough exam!

I am also excited to see how this training and exposure bolsters the pipeline of computer science educators. This is our second school year scoring for ECS, and the early signs for engagement are positive:

“My love for technology and teaching technology to middle and high school students was definitely reinforced while grading the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) tests - it was probably the most fun assignment I’ve had the opportunity to work on. The students who took the tests were from the same district I study and observe in (and will soon be student teaching in) and it was also for a subject that I deeply admire. The ECS curriculum covers concepts that I’m more than familiar with, so I am definitely looking into training and certification to teach this subject, as well (maybe as soon as this summer!).”
- Sumaiya Qazi, Graider, University of Illinois at Chicago

Part of something bigger

Computer science teachers might feel a bit like solitary pioneers in their schools, but the good news is they can participate in a virtual community of practice called CS for All Teachers, formerly known as CS10K Community. There, they can connect with over 3,500 PreK-12 educators and share ideas for implementing computer science education in their classrooms. The broader computer science community is even bigger, encompassing schoolleaders, researchers, providers, and funders, all gathered in the CS for All Consortium

This post was written by Blair Pircon, co-founder and CEO of The Graide Network.