“Constant Vigilance!”: Working for Computing Education in Georgia

October 16, 2009 at 8:57 pm 7 comments

It’s been a rough week for “Georgia Computes!” and our work to promote computing education in Georgia.

One of the things that Barb Ericson (a co-PI on our project, the Director of CS Outreach for the College of Computing, my co-author, and my wife) helped establish is an endorsement (a kind of certification) in computer science for high school teachers. Last week, Barb got bad news from one of the teachers she works with. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission website had been updated to explain that the endorsement does not allow a high school teacher to teach computer science classes, but to “run computer labs.”  Barb talked to her contacts at Georgia PSC all this week, trying to get that corrected.  Finally, they agreed that it was a mistake, and it would get fixed.  No word on how the erroneous information got posted.

Then, two days ago, Barb got word from one of her high school teachers that the Georgia Department of Education had announced that AP Computer Science would no longer count towards high school graduation requirements.  Until last month, Georgia and Texas were the only two states in the US who let students use AP CS credit towards graduation, a significant incentive to take AP CS.  Both Barb and I have working with our contacts in all the various organizations the last two days trying to find out what happened.

Here’s the story, best as we can tell so-far.  Georgia has one public University System, with one Board of Regents.  The Board of Regents recently refined their standards for admission to the system, and worked with the Georgia Department of Education to make sure that what GaDoE required for graduation met what the BoR was requiring for admission.  One of the particular areas of focus was the Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) Division classes.  There was some serious concern in both the BoR and GaDoE that some of those classes shouldn’t really count as a “Science” course for the “fourth science class requirement” of graduation and admissions.  For better or worse, computer science in Georgia is part of CTAE.  It was CTAE that announced that AP CS would no longer count towards meeting that requirement.

Now, the Board of Regents is telling us that AP CS was never even brought up for review.  They are willing to review it, and they are investigating this next week.  We just heard today from a contact with the Science Committee of the Georgia Dept of Ed that “Computer Science is only a ‘science’ in that the word is in its name.”  The Department of Education may not have brought AP CS up for review, because their Science Committee didn’t want it to count as a science towards graduation.  We’ll learn more this week, as the BoR checks to see if AP CS was on its review list, and then starts their own review of AP CS curricula to decide if it should count.

For right now, it doesn’t count.  As of October 1, only Texas counts any computer science towards high school graduation requirements.  Georgia has backslid.

I keep thinking about Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling.  “Vigilance! Constant Vigilance!” he would demand of all those fighting against the Dark Wizards. It feels like that’s what we have to do in “Georgia Computes!” to make sure that computing education keeps progressing, and doesn’t backslide.  Fortunately, Barb has her own “Order of the Phoenix,” in her network of teachers who let her know of any sign of trouble.  It really shouldn’t be this hard, should it?

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Is CS or Computing a discipline? How do we make high school CS classes more “real”?

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  October 17, 2009 at 7:35 am

    I’m sorry to hear about all the run arounds and the difficulties of getting “computing beyond how to use the UI” into high school.

    But I’ve been harping for a long time about our field not taking the word “science” seriously. I’ve written about the summer I spent in teacher workshops sponsored by Google with grad students from the hosting universities. I would often ask “what does computer science mean?” and would always at best get an engineering definition, even from the grad students. And I did little better when I asked “Well, what is science?”.

    Certainly, the current AP curriculum is not close to “science” — and most who teach it are not close to being scientists — and I have real doubts about what I hear about the attempts at reform.

    But I think it would be an interesting approach to ask “What kind of courses could we come up with that really would count as decent science courses in high school?”

    It would be easy to think of parallels to Mark’s “Media Comp” courses, where the foils would be the physical sciences (and taught scientifically). It’s possible, but not so easy, to think about what a real “computer science” course could be in high school (and taught scientifically).

    It’s harder to imagine good teachers for either of these being readily available, given that high school science teachers often leave a lot to be desired.

    I think the person on the Georgia Science Committee who said that “CS only has the word science in its name” is probably right if the curriculum in question is like most. I wonder if this person could come up with a good definition of science, and whether that person could articulate what that would mean regarding computing?

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 17, 2009 at 10:15 pm

      Hi Alan,

      Barb and I were just talking last night about the issue you raised, that the AP CS curriculum doesn’t look like a science. In the argument that I offered to the GaDOE, Computer Science classes have a lot of science practices (even if the content is not easily recognized as science by a traditional scientist), such as developing hypotheses, experimentation, and analysis of results. However, most CS curricula (including AP CS) do not make those connections between debugging and the scientific method explicitly.

      I actually don’t think that one even has to shift the foil to science. Even within media computation, we explicitly do experiments (typically about psychophysics) and regularly are surprised by the results. It has more to do with how the activity is framed than the content area of the programming.

      No, I don’t suspect that most people on the GaDOE science committee know much about computing. My contact is a biologist. I wonder if that’s part of our problem. We have a non-virtuous cycle. We tend to focus our courses on students who aim to be software developers, and those software developers never end up on committees like these. So those courses rarely get created (and offered in high school) that could be aimed at people who won’t grow up to be software developers.

      Cheers!
      Mark

      Reply
      • 3. Alan Kay  |  October 18, 2009 at 8:23 am

        Hi Mark,

        While pretty much agreeing with your comments, I think the real issue is a much deeper epistemological one — and is a problem not just in computer “science” but in the teaching of most high school and many college “real sciences” which have deep models as the representations for their theories (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology).

        In the “real deal” it’s not so much about “hypotheses, experiments, analysis” (the standard elementary school characterization of science) as it is about the goodness and depth of the mapping between the observations and the model (in the standard characterization of science, this could be thought of as real thresholds in what “analysis” actually should mean). For example, “correlations” are not good models.

        So, for example, when I was getting my Molecular Biology degree in the 60s, it was quite striking to see the difference between the biology when I was born (1940) which used the word “protoplasm” and listed gross properties, had identified a few chemical pathways (like the Krebs cycle) but didn’t really know what the catalysts (called enzymes) were, etc., and what happened in the 50s when I was a teenager to suddenly allow biology to be a “real science of structures made from chemical bonds”. Suddenly there was a new epistemological perspective on what it meant to do “biology as a real science”.

        When Al Perlis called for a real “computer science” in the 60s (heartily seconded by many other giants of our field), he was calling for something similar, but applied to our synthetic design based field.

        One of the analogies (which I’ve written about previously) is to human made bridges, and the possibilities for real science, real engineering and real art. This is because one way to look at real science is that it “tries to understand phenomena via careful observations and making ever better models”, and this works for physical, biological and artificial phenomena.

        Besides SICP, another book in the same vein that I like a lot is “Essentials of Programming Languages” by Friedman and Wand. I’d call this a “real computer science” textbook. And it would be of much wider appeal and use if recast in a non-S-expression surface form. Even better, we could imagine a book in the same spirit but with a stronger look at the best ideas of the last 50 years combined with eyes strongly peering into the future. And a book that is squarely aimed at high school …

        In any case, my prejudice is that we need to nail down the desirable content of a “real computer science” course, and then try to figure out how to present and teach it. Today, with a few important exceptions, it seems as though lots more effort is going into how to teach without first drawing thresholds and distinctions about the needed content.

        Cheers,

        Alan

        Reply
      • 4. Mark Miller  |  October 19, 2009 at 12:53 am

        Neil deGrasse Tyson defined science succinctly as “a philosophy of discovery”. What I experienced in CS 20 years ago, and what I see continued today is what I’d call “small science”, which is more concerned with experiencing computing (which could also be characterized as appreciating computing) through trial and error (what you call the cycle of hypotheses, experimentation, and analysis), and manipulating and designing via. computing, than actually understanding and exploring what computing is, and how it gives us another perspective with which to think and perceive. Based on descriptions you’ve provided of your course I think you’re closer to the latter than the typical CS curriculum. So I compliment you on that.

        A conceit that I’ve seen with CS is a belief that we don’t need to explore, reason about, and hypothesize about what programming is or what it means, what an operating system is or needs to be, or what a computer is. It’s assumed that all of these areas of study are already defined, etched in stone, done. It’s assumed that the student needs to just learn what’s been designed already. The typical attitude is, “All you need to know is how to program (and now with the “one language to rule them all”), and do it well,” with a series of exercises. It might as well be an English major (except in that, there’s a canon of classics that’s studied).

        If we look at the sciences broadly what we see is a history of major discoveries that changed how we viewed ourselves, our world, and our universe. When was the last time discoveries of that magnitude were made in CS? Computing focuses us more on abstractions than the physical world, though physical phenomena are definitely a part of it, but I think discoveries of this magnitude were made in the field at one time. That was decades ago, and even then, the science and its discoveries were only partly understood by institutions that attempted to promulgate it.

        You are right that CS promotes scientific practices, but if you look at what’s really taught, the scientific practices come about as side effects. The students learn them on their own through the practice of programming. The fundamental problem is this: CS does not promote the scientific outlook on its own subject!

        When I read your quote from the representative of the Science Committee, it took me right back to what my CS professors used to say with a note of irony, “Any discipline with the word ‘science’ in its name is not a science,” and they included CS. We do not call chemistry “ion science”. We do not call physics “energy science”. We do not call biology “organic systems science”. I’m not suggesting a name change just to satisfy an education committee’s criteria. There’s a deeper problem here.

        Alan pointed out at the Rebooting Computing summit that the hard sciences enable new fields of study, and new departments at universities, to be opened up for specific areas of research that differentiate themselves enough that they need their own field. If you look at the hard sciences they have all done this. CS is still largely monolithic, with a hint of differentiation in informatics. Could we say that perhaps informatics is the first real “science of computing” field out of the chute? I don’t know enough about it to say yes or no.

        Reply
  • 5. Fred Martin  |  October 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I was asking Mark about how is math classified, because I also surmised that the existing CS-AP doesn’t look much like a science class.

    But it should be possible to argue that even with its limited epistemological depth, the CS-AP has got a bunch of ideas about abstraction, algorithms, and data types, which qualify it as a college-level academic (vs. vocational) STEM course.

    Alan, I like the direction of your comments a lot more; I was thinking more incrementally of being able to get more status for the existing version of CS in high schools.

    Fred

    Reply
  • […] 19, 2009 I started working on a reply to Alan Kay’s comment on my previous blog post, and as it got longer with more links, I realized I should just use blog-owner’s prerogative […]

    Reply
  • […] Overall, this feels like the last time that Georgia un-decided to let AP CS count towards high school graduation. Two steps forward, one step back. “Constant vigilance!” […]

    Reply

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