An undergraduate degree in Computer Science Education

July 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm 4 comments

Barb and I visited the University of Maryland at College Park yesterday, where they are developing an undergraduate degree in computer science education.  They plan to help generate Jan Cuny’s “10K teachers in 10K schools by 2015.”  It’s a joint effort between Jim Purtilo, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Linda Valli, Chair of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction in the College of Education.  All the right people were at the table: teachers, representatives of local school districts, state Department of Education officials, and state certification officials.

They invited me to give a talk about what the research questions are in computing education — what do we know, and what don’t we know?  (My slides are available.)  They asked Barb to talk about the efforts in Georgia, which have led to an endorsement (an “add-on” certification to an existing certification), a state-wide CS curriculum for high schools, and large professional development effort. The rest of the day was discussion about what they’re trying to do, what haven’t they thought about yet, what they’re trying to figure out.  It was really interesting.

Barb pointed out that Maryland is one of the few states that could pull this off, because they do have certification for teaching computer science.  They can graduate students who are certified already.  In Georgia, you’d have to be certified in something else, then add-on computer science.  However, to do that, they need to have students take not one but two semester-long “methods” courses, on how to teach computer science well.  I’ve heard of a few schools that have CS Methods classes, but only single-semester courses.  Maryland needs to build two semester-long classes.  The content exists, I think — we know a good bit about how to teach computing well.  However, it requires someone who knows the literature well to build such classes from scratch.  Maryland knows that it will have to hire someone to make this new degree program work. They need to find someone who works in computing education research AND can get tenured at a top research institution like Maryland.  That’s a tall order.

I was critiqued at the meeting for not doing enough work in computing education, or maybe, not doing the right work.  One of the state officials asked us how computer science classes in high school correlate to national standards in technology education, since such standards exist.  What technology skills would one develop in taking a computer science course?  I responded with information about ACM’s Education Policy Committee and said that they were looking at those kinds of questions.  She asked why I wasn’t doing that.  I pointed out that I have other things that I’m doing, that also need to be done.  She got really annoyed that I didn’t see this question as critically important, and I overheard her telling others that they have to “make me” develop these matches to technology standards.  (What does that mean?)  I do understand that establishing a match to standards is very important, and I understand that there are many policy issues that are critically important for the advancement of computing education.  It’s also important to figure out how to teaching computing better and to understand what’s going on when someone learns computing.  Not everybody has to do everything.

One of the most interesting open questions still on the table when the meeting ended was who the students will be in this degree program.  They are designing the program so that students can start in computer science, then decide whether to continue in computer science or switch to computer science education. That’s a reasonable plan, but it’s not obvious to me that that scenario is how they’ll find the students who will be the best computer science teachers.  I can imagine students in education, especially science education, who discover a love for computing who would be terrific computer science teachers.  The current plan requires at least nine classes in computer science.  Does a high school computer science teacher need that much computer science?  (These will be the same classes as for the normal computer science major.)  Certainly, those teachers will really know their computer science.  But just as certainly, such a long and rigorous sequence will scare away most education students who might want to try that path.  Who makes the best computer science teacher, the person with a passion for teaching who discovers computing, or the person with a passion for computing who decides to share it?  I don’t know — it’s an open and interesting question.

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DNA: A new CS1 language, for teaching systems Looking for Excuses to Do Something Good

4 Comments Add your own

  • […] Mark Guzdial: I was critiqued at the meeting for not doing enough work in computing education, or maybe, not doing the right work. One of the state officials asked us how computer science classes in high school correlate to national standards in technology education, since such standards exist. What technology skills would one develop in taking a computer science course? I responded with information about ACM’s Education Policy Committee and said that they were looking at those kinds of questions. She asked why I wasn’t doing that. I pointed out that I have other things that I’m doing, that also need to be done. She got really annoyed that I didn’t see this question as critically important, and I overheard her telling others that they have to “make me” develop these matches to technology standards. (What does that mean?) I do understand that establishing a match to standards is very important, and I understand that there are many policy issues that are critically important for the advancement of computing education. It’s also important to figure out how to teaching computing better and to understand what’s going on when someone learns computing. Not everybody has to do everything. […]

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  • 2. Michelle  |  July 15, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    I don’t think it would be fair to have the same amount of classes as the computer science major, but I do think there needs to be more than what they are giving us in school now. I just graduated with a computer science minor with my major in elementary/middle school teacher. I could see the classes at my college as reasonable if the person had no background. But moving from the basics(how to make a ppt) to righting code in one class???? I’m glad I had my extensive background in computers from my dad who is a computer software engineer and given me the experience that I needed. Then, the only methods class we had was with math minors and to create one lesson plan to teach. That was it and I felt incredibly unprepared to teach computers. Thankfully, student teaching was a blessing and the teacher I worked with gave me wonderful ideas and hints. However, what about the others in my class? I would hate going to my first computer teaching job at an Indian Mission and School teaching computers to Kindergarteners to 8th grade if I didn’t have the experience from my supervisor.

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  • 3. Are We Doing It Right? | ASP Scribe  |  July 17, 2009 at 6:10 am

    […] I’ve spent the last week on vacation. A vacation from the Internet as much as from work. As I write this it is 6 days since I have checked email, opened a web browser, Twittered a message to Twitter or had any other sort of Internet activity*. It’s been a bit of a relief. Oh sure I am somewhat dreading the flow of email waiting for me but I think it is worth it this time. that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about things though. While not as much as I planned to do I have been thinking a bit about computer science education. Most of this thinking was brought on by a conversation that was going on in the SIGCSE mailing list before I went on vacation. The discussion was about programs leading to a PhD in Computer Science Education. This conversation was going in two threads. One was the value of a program like this to prepare PhDs to teach computer science which most people think is unnecessary. The other was the value of a PhD program to research computer science education. People didn’t seem strongly supportive of that idea as being necessary. Not that they were writing it off but few seem to see a problem with the way we teach computer science. I would disagree there. I think we’re doing it mostly wrong. I’m not saying I have the answer – I don’t. What I do think though is that we need some really smart people to do research on how to teach computer science better. I think these people need to understand computer science at a deep level and also understand teaching. Frankly most university professors in most fields are not all that interested in teaching. Being a great teacher is not as likely to get one tenure as good research. And research in  how to teach, from what I keep hearing, is not particularly valued by computer science departments. I see this as a huge problem. We do have a lot of people creating interesting tools for teaching computer science. Projects like Alice, Scratch, Kodu, Small Basic, BlueJ, Greenfoot, Teach Scheme and more are out there. There isn’t a lot of research going on about their efficacy though. I’m not saying there is none. The people are Carnegie Mellon have done some good work with Alice and are doing more. There are some articles and papers out on BlueJ I believe. Georgia Tech has done some studies with their various programs for teaching CS1. But there is not much that compares different tools to each other. There hasn’t been a lot of critical work – by that I mean papers that point out flaws in these tools – though I did hear on that had some concerns about Alice at SIGCSE a while back. There are a lot of people who want these programs to work who are discovering that they do – surprise! And they are working in places. No question. But one wonders (ok I wonder) is that the result of the teachers/professors who are using the tools or the result of the tools themselves? There are some great teachers who gravitate to new tools. How much is the tool and how much the instructor? Many teachers are not finding success with these tools? Who to blame there? Teacher or tool? Frankly we don’t have enough research on this stuff. The field is too young. Some years ago I learned about some software from Brown University called ChemPad. This software allows a student to draw a 2D representation of a molecule on a tablet PC. The software would then model that in 3 dimensions and allow the student to rotate and study the molecule in various ways. Why was this important? Well research had shown that one particular class was a gatekeeper to more advanced chemistry courses. It required students to visualize molecules in three dimensions. Some found this easy and some (many) found it hard. Students who found it hard seldom if ever got past this course. The professor who taught the class decided that is would be better to help students overcome this problem than to completely lose them to the field of chemistry. That lead directly to this program. From what I heard last I talked to people about it this program was succeeding. What are the visualization or thought processed in computer science that are difficult for beginners to grasp? Do we even know? Once we know can we develop tools and techniques to help them past these barriers? I hope so. I believe so. But we’ve got to have smart people doing the research to make that happen. From where are those people going to come? *Note: I did have some posts show up automatically while I was away and there were some automatic posts about those to Twitter but they don’t count as they were all queued up before I left. Note: Leigh Ann Sudol has  A message to the SIGCSE list serv at her blog that is worth reading. Note: A somewhat related post by Mark Guzdial at An undergraduate degree in Computer Science Education […]

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  • […] being the correct execution.  What Wicked Teacher was looking for was why should she care.  The state education officer who critiqued me for not thinking hard enough about the match of standards t… was right.  If I want teachers to care about computing, I need to show them why it’s […]

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