Archive for November 4, 2009

Filling the Doughnut-Hole with Computing Education

When Barb was a little girl, her grandfather was mayor for 10 years of Ubly, a small town (no traffic light, just one blinking light in the center of town) in the “Thumb” of Michigan.  The town had a movie theater, a grocery, and a thriving social community.  Today, Ubly is much quieter.  The movie theater and grocery have both gone.  Most of the farmers have gone from Ubly.

Yesterday, Barb and I visited Soppe-le-Haut and Soppe-le-Bas in France, the towns where that grandfather’s ancestors came from.  Both town are small but thriving, with a few dozen homes each.  Each home has a barn. Most of those barns contain tractors.  Almost all of the homes have chickens, cows, or horses in their yards.

I don’t really understand the economics of that difference.  Why did American small farms fall to large corporate farms, while Europe retained their small farms?  Why did Barb’s grandfather’s town shrink while his ancestors town thrived?

A new book by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas is also concerned about the declining rural America.  Their new book Hollowing Out the Middle and the interview with them in this week’s Newsweek describes their suggested solution.  In part, they would like to see rural communities draw back young families, with a strong Internet infrastructure, to support telecommuting.  Information technology is one of their targeted industries.

Why doesn’t that just happen?  In keeping with a recent theme of this blog, these authors point out that the rural education system is aimed at supporting the “best and brightest,” and ignoring the bottom half of the students — who are most likely to stay.

First, by changing their attitudes toward their high-school graduates. Small towns traditionally put all their efforts behind the smart students (whom the authors label “Achievers”), pushing them out to four-year universities in cities, where they are much more likely to succeed and, unfortunately for the town, much more likely to stay. Students who are less accomplished or driven are given little support, but they are also the ones who are most likely to remain in their small towns post-graduation. In order to make sure these kids succeed, and thus benefit the community, the authors argue, they need to be better trained in areas such as computer technology, health care, sustainable agriculture, and green energy, areas geared toward the modern global economy.

I suggest that we do not currently know how to make these authors’ vision come to fruition.  Our CS1 methods lose the bottom 30-50% of the students.  Those are the students that these authors would like to see become the backbone of the rural economy in the United States, telecommuting to become part of distributed software development teams.  We need to develop teaching methods that lead to success for a greater number of students, to educate the “rest” of the students, for visions like this to succeed.


November 4, 2009 at 2:55 pm 1 comment

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