Start ’em Young!

Educators and innovators are calling for an earlier introduction to computer science for U.S. school children. “Producing computer scientists and engineers to fill the demand from domestic companies should be a national priority,” says Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. While enrollment in engineering and computer science schools is growing, it is not growing at the same pace as other countries. In many such programs U.S. citizens are a minority. The class of 2012 at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science drew 2,390 applicants – 590 from the United States, 602 from India, 678 from China, and the rest from other countries. “Most (U.S.) students are not exposed to computer science in the same way they are to biology and physics,” Wing said. She is pushing for incorporating computer science in the K-12 curriculum.

Some educators believe that increased exposure to computers has naturally created a generation of computer whizzes. Digital natives are often assumed to have heightened computing and technical skills. Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd says the stereotype is false. While the vast majority of digital natives know how to chat on Facebook and text their friends, many lack media literacy and information literacy skills. “Ironically, they are often less skilled when it comes to technology than those already in the workforce. They may, on the whole, be more experimental, but they’re not necessarily more skilled,” Boyd states.

MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group is working on one possible solution. The group has released tools that allow preschoolers and kindergartners to create animated stories on the computer through the use of modular blocks. The technology prepares children for learning how to program later in grade school. Mitch Resnick, director of the group, states that the intent is to allow children to “develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they’re in control.” “We don’t want kids to see the computer as something where they just browse and click. We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves,” Resnick said.

Researchers at Cambridge have designed a fully functional Linux computer on a single circuit-board that is selling for just $35. Just connect a keyboard and display or television and you’re ready to go! The product is called the Raspberry Pi, and is selling like hotcakes. The primary intent of the inventors is to promote computer science and programming in grade schools. In an article about the device, columnist John Noughton points out that so far “we’ve taken a technology that can provide “power steering for the mind” (as a noted metaphor puts it) and turned it into a lesson for driving Microsoft Word.” Like the others quoted here, Noughton hopes that school systems can begin early in teaching children how to control and program computers to extend human capabilities and shape our future. Not to be passive users, but to become active developers and innovators.

Back in the Saddle Again

Singing Cowboy
I’m back! With a new job and a fresh outlook on life. I have moved from teaching Computer Lit in the Computer Science Department to directing a new Program in Interdisciplinary Computing. The goal of the program is to discover common computer skills across various disciplines at the university, and develop courses to teach those skills. I will remain involved in computer literacy/fluency as an author and developer, but now my area of research will extend into discipline-specific skills – computer fluency for professionals.

This evolution towards interdisciplinary computing only makes sense. Computing, and computer programming are no longer activities only pursued by computer scientists and engineers. Professionals in every discipline are leveraging computers and technology in their daily activities. Apply computing skills to work in every discipline produces new innovations and leaders in the global marketplace. For college students to innovate and lead, they must gain a deeper understanding of computing and how to apply it in their field. It is up to colleges to see that students graduate knowing a LOT more than Microsoft Office.

Students are ready to be challenged in this area. Typical college intro computer courses do not challenge today’s students. While learning higher level computer skills and computer programming is hard work, new teaching methods that are goal-oriented, and collaborative in nature, can engage our students. I am looking forward to dedicating my work to discovering what needs to be taught and how to successfully teach it. Follow my weekly progress on this blog. Also check my Web sites (teachtechnology.biz, www.pic.fsu.edu) for course descriptions and materials.