What are we? Chopped liver? CS left out of National Academy STEM standards

July 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm 26 comments

A committee from the National Academies has released a new draft set of science education standards, the first in over 10 years.  While there is discussion in the draft about the use of computers for modeling and simulation, and the definition of “science” is broad enough to include “Engineering design,” the phrase “computer science” doesn’t appear anywhere in the standards.  Science students don’t really need to know anything about computation.

Comments are sought.  I think we should ask them how they can include “technology” but leave out all of computer science, an entire discipline of science and technology.

A panel of the U.S. National Academies today released its initial description of what U.S. elementary and high school students should learn in science. The goal of the conceptual framework for science education standards (pdf of draft) is to “identify and articulate the core ideas in science in the disciplines of life sciences, physical sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering and technology, cross cutting ideas and scientific practices.”

via Comments Sought on How to Teach Science in U.S. Schools – ScienceInsider.

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26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. webb  |  July 13, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Our company recently gave out scholarships to employees’ children who earned PSAT national merit finalist. In the press release it said they were proud to have so many of the students planning to pursue “STEM” majors. IIRC —> the majority were computer science!

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  July 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Well, it’s an “interesting” report. The subject is enormous, and it is certainly not easy to formulate and write something “good enough” to help move things to the next plateau.

    It’s biggest lacks are epistemological: it misses what is really important about why scientific process is done the way it is, etc.

    And, don’t worry about computing (which is mentioned slightly), they bent over backwards to *not* talk about what math is and why it is important here (I got the strong feeling that this as a territorial dispute). It is quite striking that though they mention “making models”, they have so little to say about this.

    My conclusion is that we should be worrying about the whole report, not just about whether they are mentioning computing.



  • 3. Charles Severance  |  July 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    The report talks a lot about technology and some about computing – in particular the applications of computing. I have to somewhat agree with the Academy, given the high level nature of the document, that it would be wrong to explicitly include Computer Science as STEM. Even the word “algebra” is barely mentioned. If you look at how algebra is treated in the document is it described as a means to a science end – not an end in itself. In a sense, the document talks far more about computing and technology than it does about mathematics – but only in the context of a means to an end rather than an end itself.

    I think this is quite appropriate. In the broadest sense (which is what the report is addressing), particular computer science knowledge like recursion, encapsulation, or karnaugh maps is not really a learning objective for STEM any more than surface-integrals are a particular STEM learning objective. However solid understanding of technology and how it can be used to better understand the world is something that is broadly useful in a K-12 context.

    To me, this is the basic difference between Informatics and Computer Science. Computer Science is focused on preparing CS professionals who will create technology as their avocation whereas Informatics is about teaching everyone enough about technology to apply and use it throughout their lives regardless of their chosen career.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  July 14, 2010 at 8:26 am

      Charles, by what definition do you claim “Computer Science is focused on preparing CS professionals who will create technology”? Alan Perlis (one of the guys who coined the term “Computer Science”) argued in 1961 that all undergraduates should take CS, regardless of their major. Jeanette Wing argued in her Computational Thinking article that CS is a good degree to prepare a student for any career. Alan Kay’s “Triple Whammy” definition of CS doesn’t say anything about producing software. Our Threads CS degree, which has “software engineer” as only one of several possible outcomes, is being approved by ABET as a BS in CS degree program.

      I’ve seen this definition (implicitly) on the SIGCSE members list, but have not figured out where it’s coming from. Is this a University of Michigan definition?


      • 5. Charles Severance  |  July 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

        There is not a “University of Michigan definition” – it is more the philosophy of the design of our undergraduate Informatics program. I am trying to give you some possible rationale why your desire introduce the notion of a computational model as core part of a K12 curriculum seems to fall on deaf ears. It is pretty common for a focused domain to be so enamored with its core concepts that those in the domain feel that 100% of the educated people in our country must be exposed to those core concepts.

        Both you and Alan have done a good job of reducing CS to a few easily described core concepts (storage, representation, processing). While you and (perhaps) Alan think that the elegant expression makes the case for inclusion of CS in the broadest of K12 curricula, I would claim that your very concise and accurate descriptions make *exactly the opposite case* – the case that the core CS concepts you and Alan describe are neither suitable for broad exposure in K12 nor as a single course required for all college students.

        You seem to be stuck in the notion that if you had only fifteen weeks of material to present to a ninth grader or freshman that the best use of that time is to lay groundwork for understanding highly abstracted CS notions. You must realize that when you are designing such a curriculum you must impart real knowledge that will truly be valuable to 100% of the educated population assuming no further courses.

        So as an example, the Water Cycle is really cool stuff – it serves as a great example to give students a window into science – and also gives them a great skill that helps them decide each day for the rest of their life whether to take an umbrella with them as they go to work or school.

        Spreadsheets can be used to graph cool plant growth data and again offer a window into science understanding but also be useful in lots of careers.

        Spreadsheets and Water Cycle clearly are of great use to all of the educated populace and as such are firmly ensconced in K12 curricula and when there is a required technology course in higher education it certainly included spreadsheets.

        Where you, Alan and I certainly agree is that in this day and age, K12 curricula and broadly required college courses need to explore a much richer and deeper understanding of technology and the mechanisms that underly technology. We all agree that this is rich and lovely material and very stimulating intellectually and also highly useful throughout life.

        Where we disagree is the purpose of that first fifteen weeks – either in ninth grade or as that required-by-all.

        Your position is that such a course is to be designed so that it is a wonderful prelude to Computer Science and inspires the student to pick CS as their chosen field, choose to go to college, choose CS as their major and spend 45 credits of their undergraduate degree in the required courses in one of the “threads”.

        My position is “assume they never ever ever” take another technology course and I only have them for fifteen weeks and that they are paying real money for my course and I want them to come back years later and tell me that my course was one of the most useful courses they ever took in their whole life. (Hyperbole added to make the point).

        Interestingly there is a lot of of overlap between courses designed using the two different starting philosophies – both give some sense of data and computation and perhaps even networking – but when I build courses intended for a broad audience, I am trying to teach the lessons in computation as a side effect of giving them a useful and relevant life skill (i.e. like as spreadsheet). The courses designed from your perspective delay the “good stuff” and the “real-world application” because that historically has always came later in a CS curriculum (CS0/CS1 *are* the first in a series of Computer Science Courses that build on one another).

        Mark – you are on all the right committees and have the grants and credibility to begin a shift from “the first in a sequence of many CS courses” to a “literacy course that imparts useful life skills in computation”. I am not on those committees and not involved in those projects so my best chance for effecting the kind of change I would like to see happen is to convince *you* and then let you do the hard work 🙂

        And here is to me the best payoff for this is increased interest in Computer Science by the students that take a course that is designed as a broad literacy course. At the end of such a course, while all the students have learned valuable life skills, some of the students may have gained a bit of curiosity about how it all really works. Those are the next generation of Computer Scientists.

        So the irony, if my hypothesis is correct, is that we will increase overall interest in Computer Science is we teach less explicit CS and more useful technology skills in that all-important first broadly taken course at the K12 and college level.

        • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  July 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

          “Your position is that such a course is to be designed so that it is a wonderful prelude to Computer Science and inspires the student to pick CS as their chosen field, choose to go to college, choose CS as their major and spend 45 credits of their undergraduate degree in the required courses in one of the “threads”.”

          I never said anything of that sort. That’s not at all what I am working toward. I don’t know what windmill you’re tilting at, but it’s not me.

  • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  July 13, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I dropped a note to Phil Bell and Joe Krajcik from the committee. I sent them Alan’s Triple Whammy note, and included the below:

    A couple of the concepts that I think would be contenders include:
    – A computational model is a description of a process specified at a level of detail that it can be executed by a machine. That kind of concept helps to understand the power of computational science, and also its limitation (e.g., specifying the process to that level of detail is a check on the quality of the theory, but it’s only usable when you reach that level of understanding).
    – All information on a computer is represented in terms of discrete integer values (represented in binary). That’s both a broad statement (e.g., everything from YouTube videos to Molecular Workbench models are essentially the same stuff to a computer) and a narrow one (e.g., all floating point numbers on a computer are just simulations of real numbers that are essentially just discrete, limited values).

  • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  July 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

    The on-line survey for providing feedback is now available at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/Standards_Framework_Homepage.html

  • […] This is in response to Mark Guzdials blog post about “What are we? Chopped Liver? CS Left our of National Academy STEM Standards”. […]

  • 11. Leigh Ann Sudol  |  July 14, 2010 at 11:36 am

    So.. way too much to write here, so I wrote there: http://www.virtualcompsci.net/blog/?p=119

    Basically – can we have our cake and eat it too? Are we a math? Are we a science? Do we exist on our own?

    And if we argue for all of the above do we sound like a 10-year old who wants chocolate sauce on everything (including his broccoli)?

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  July 14, 2010 at 2:59 pm

      Hi Leigh Ann,

      I don’t mean to be a piggy 10 year old, as you say, but I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about here. “There has been a lot of buzz in the past year of how we have aligned ourselves with the mathematics community.” We have? Who has? I’m a member of the ACM Education Board and the SIGCSE Board, and I’m not aware of either organization creating an alliance with the mathematics community. Is it CSTA? EPC? Do those organizations speak for all of CS Education? When I read Peter Denning’s columns in CACM, I see a community that sees itself as Science, Math, and Engineering. I don’t see this strong sense of alignment.

      I know that Texas has decided that AP CS counts as a mathematics course, but in Georgia, the decision was to count AP CS as a mathematics course. Does that mean that Texas represents computer science? More than Georgia? Why would that be?

      To be clear, while the standards are coming from the “Science Education Board,” their goal is “the core ideas in science in the disciplines of life sciences, physical sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering and technology, cross cutting ideas and scientific practices.” If this is about “science, engineering and technology,” I expect to see some computer science. That’s certainly a space that computer science inhabits.

      I share your goal for a (true) computing literacy course, but that’s not what I see at stake here. The NRC framework is describing “cross cutting ideas and scientific practices.” Even if that’s just in Science, that includes computer science. That’s what Scientists and Engineers use today. To not talk about it is a disadvantage to the Science students, whether or not they ever consider becoming a CS major.

      Finally, I’m not beating up on any math or science educators. They rock. I’m responding to those setting the standards for the next ten years. Is it really the case that it will not be important for science high school students over the next ten years to know anything about CS? I don’t believe it.


      • 13. Leigh Ann Sudol  |  July 15, 2010 at 9:28 am


        By no means did I mean to imply that we were being “piggy” – I guess chocolate was a bad idea. It was more that we as a community felt that our particular flavoring just makes everything else better, but we are arguing it to people who have never had chocolate or believed that chocolate was even good.

        Its more about the arguments being unfocused and coming from all sides at once. Where do we belong? everywhere? that might work more in an elementary school where the subjects are already a little more integrated, but in K12 we really need to decide on a focused approach with benefits to those whose curriculum will be altered.

        If I was a school administrator I may be unsure about how to ask my teachers to integrate this, or who is accountable for the content and that is a difficulty in schools. Especially if such a program does not exist.

        • 14. Mark Guzdial  |  July 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

          You’re right, of course, that this is hard to sell to people who don’t grok computing. If we think of computing as being a medium, a tool for expression and cognition, then it does belong everywhere. You wouldn’t keep reading and writing to just the reading and writing class, right?

          I do agree that we need to argue in terms of the benefit to the kids whose curriculum is being altered. I honestly believe that during the next ten years (the time frame we’re looking at for these standards), it will be critical for high school students studying science to understand concepts in computer science in order to be effective learners and practitioners in science. I don’t believe it’s a whole course. However, it is really computer science, not applications use. For example, limitations of representation in a computer create limits on use of models and simulations. Those are real issues for science students at the high school level, and data representation on a computer is a real computer science topic.

          Thinking about the school administrator is the wrong level at this stage. This is the draft of a future standards document. It took years and years for Science for All Americans to have a serious impact on American schools. But if it’s not in the standards, it well never make it to the classroom — not in the next ten years, anyway.

  • 15. Alan Kay  |  July 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    A few more thoughts …

    1. I like the rallying cry “Children First!”, meaning that the prime axes along which we should be discussing these issues should have to do with how to help them become fluently invested in the most important powerful ideas that humanity has come up with.

    2. I think it would be much easier to criticize this report if it were addressed to all of STEM (where, for example, mathematics is a full partner in the discussion).

    3. I also like the rallying cry “Systems Perspectives” because these (a) provide a powerful rubric to view a wide range of natural and human phenomena, and (b) to provide the multiple perspectives that are so important for modern knowledge.

    4. One of the several weaknesses in the approach of this report is that it fails to recognize that each of the STEM fields has aspects that can be viewed through the others. This misses many opportunities for downright unification in the early grades and fruitful synergies later on.

    For example, they do not point out (though I’m sure some of the authors recognize very well) that there are intense engineering and scientific aspects in the foundations and processes in mathematics.

    5. I think the most interesting chapter is 4: Cross cutting Elements. They have a very hard time with these topics, and often miss by making category errors: for example, “systems and system models” fits their intro criteria, but e.g. “stability and change” is not the same species.

    Still, we could argue convincingly that this chapter done well should be at the front of this book and that what is put in here is what their framework should be about.

    And I think this is where we have to consider what computing brings to the party as a way to deal with most of the “issues of thinking and knowing” in all the areas of “powerful ideas”.

    To me this would be a big contribution, but I also don’t think that much from the official field that calls itself “computer science” would be of much interest or use.

    6. But I do think that big and important analogies can be made to (a) how science thinks of itself as a “relationship between what we can represent/model and ‘what’s out there?’ “, (b) how we can construct the kinds of models that will help us think better, and (c) why learning to construct these models and the models of these models tremendously aids the underlying range of thinking that we can do.



  • 16. Charles Xie  |  July 15, 2010 at 8:40 am

    There is a difference between “using computational science to teach” and “teaching computational science”. The former uses computational science as a technology tool to assist teaching, which covers modeling and simulation they mentioned. Folks such as Bob Panoff and Uri Wilensky seem to do both at the same time.

    I guess this somehow reflects a fundamental difference between CS folks (e.g. the Logo/Scratch family from the Media Lab and now Google Inventor) and the science education folks, which may think computation is just a tool to do what they want to teach. On the other hand, CS folks (such as the Media Lab) may not care. For example, the measure of success may be how many kids they have actually gotten to use their tools such as in the case of those Lego competitions—who cares if robotics is in the curriculum standards or not.

    Computational thinking is the best argument to get CS into K-12 curriculum. But not everyone buys “computational thinking”. I am yet to see some convincing examples about computational thinking at work that cannot be explained otherwise.

    • 17. Mark Guzdial  |  July 15, 2010 at 10:49 am

      Charles, can you explain what “that cannot be explained otherwise” means? That it’s not obvious that knowing about computing was absolutely necessary?

      • 18. Charles Xie  |  July 15, 2010 at 11:59 am

        Basically I am looking for some examples in the basic science curriculum in which certain conceptual understanding cannot be achieved without applying computational thinking. I am not fully convinced by Dr. Wing’s examples in her defining article, which is mostly spoken from the CS’s point of view. For computational thinking to be relevant in other sciences than CS, we need to provide a few proofs. After all, we are trying to argue thinking like a computer scientist will make students become a better physicist or chemist or biologist.

  • 19. Alan Kay  |  July 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Not to be too categorical, but maybe this will help. “Techne” and “Ars” are the Greek and Latin roots for “the products of human creativity” (that is, everything we make whether out of physical or mental “material”). “Technology”, then, is “technically” the *study* of everything we make, but has slid a little to also stand for *all that we make*.

    So engineering, mathematics and the sciences are parts of this, as are the fine arts, music, writing, philosophy, etc. Not just the products of the fields, but also the fields themselves.

    We should ask “why engineering?”, “why math?”, “why science?” and so forth. In other words, what is special enough about them — that is, not just their results, but their processes — to merit staking out named territory in all of human creativity?

    There are very good answers to these questions.

    To me, the one for science is the most important: the processes of science are set up to get around as much as possible what is wrong with our human thinking processes — both genetic, and the related culturally transmitted difficulties.

    The general public — and even some scientists — these days often miss this, and think that science is primarily aimed at finding out about the natural world. It has been pretty good at this, but its success is due to the “whammy” of science above.

    And, I also think very strongly that this “learning how to get around what’s wrong with our thinking” is the biggest reason for claiming that we should try to help every person on the planet get fluent at it.

    “Powerful ideas” are those which make a big difference with these issues.

    So, we could start thinking about a “powerful ideas curriculum” for K-12 as the underlying fabric for most of the now “fragmented by disciplines” confusions.

    I also want to use the term “computing” rather than “CS” (which long ago lost what was originally aimed for and has no agreed on meaning today). And I don’t want this term to only mean “digital computing”, but to span all of computing.

    Now if we make a Venn diagram for STEM, we have Technology enclosing all, and the other three partially overlapping with each other.

    “Systems” could be claimed to have enough power and merit to have its own territory inside of Technology. How would you draw it in?

    Similarly “Computing” could be claimed to have enough power and merit to have its own territory inside of Technology. How would you draw it in?

    And, if “Calculus” is a powerful idea within Mathematics, then what would be comparably powerful within Computing?

    Best wishes,


  • 20. Rachel Kannady  |  July 15, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    It is my opinion, that before we can get into a discussion of the value or non value of teaching computational science, it is important to make sure that the students (those who are k-12) learn how to use a computer.
    One of the main problems faced in many schools is that many students still do not all have access to a computer, much less internet access on a regular basis.
    Once this problem is solved, then the next might be teaching teachers in k-12 classrooms how to do more with computers than simply create worksheets, run attendance and grade reports and make powerpoints that are nothing more than a digital projection of notes to copy down.
    AFTER, those basics are accomplished then the discussion of where computational sciences fits in and how best to teach it (ie, what school environment in belongs in, what department it fits with, etc) can begin to be addressed.
    However, I hate to say it, but I believe we are looking at another 10 years before computational science will become part of the package deal required of k-12 curriculum on a national level.

  • 21. Blog Post: Little Orphan Computer Science | IT.beta  |  July 16, 2010 at 6:40 am

    […] computer science is not in the latest set of STEM standards from the National Academes of Science (What are we? Chopped liver? CS left out of National Academy STEM standards) There are lots of comments there BTW. Leigh Ann Sudol replies in her blog (What are we? […]

  • 22. Alan Kay  |  July 17, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Curriculum Frameworks Are Valuable

    Several of the best ones were done in the 80s in California via Bill Honig and Francie Alexander. A particular standout was the “English and Language Arts Framework” whose aim was to delineate what they thought children should learn and why — very nicely put in this document — and in a form that encouraged a wide range of actual pedagogical approaches and concrete curricula.

    In that vein, we could think about the matters at hand and try to identify some of the ideas and principles we think children should learn in STEM.

    I’ve already talked about some of the epistemological principles, so here will focus on a subset of “deep content”.

    1. For example, a deep content idea in the physical sciences would be Feynmann’s favorite: the particle theory of matter, and the kinetic motion of particles theory of heat. Understanding this fluently in an operational fashion by the end of high school would be a goal connected to this idea, and we could imagine many approaches to how this could be taught and learned.

    2. A deep content idea in the biological sciences is that ordinary matter can have organizations and conditions which can (a) make more of themselves from ordinary matter, and that (b) can produce myriad non-trivial variations via the combination of noise, noise-reduction, and sufficient amounts of time. We can imagine it being quite a challenge to help children understand this fluently.

    3. A deep content idea in mathematics is that descriptions can be organized and transformed to create new descriptions whose “strength of meaning” is known.

    4. A deep content idea in the **** sciences (our interest here) is a human parallel to biology: that humans can configure ordinary matter into organizations which can (a) represent and manipulate descriptions of ideas and processes, and (b) where the range of descriptions encompasses all we can describe.

    I use **** because several of the most useful terms here have already been colonized with weak meanings.

    Though each of these areas have special content ideas we would like children to understand, it is an egregious pedagogical mistake to isolate the content areas from each other into separate subjects. The important goals of a general K-12 education for the whole public is much better served by emphasizing the commonalities, similarities, and synergies between all of these areas — and in the early grades, they should be taught as “one thing”.

    Best wishes,


  • 23. Garth  |  July 20, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    I am sort of following the discussion here but things get a bit fuzzy when a high school CS courses are discussed. What does high school (or even K12) CS consist of? I have read a lot of comments around the web that teaching word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, movie making and other applications should not be part of a CS curriculum. The trouble is that for 99% of the K12 students, 99% of the time, that is all they need for the rest of their lives. I have seen arguments that every kid should take a programming class because they will be using a computer that is based on programs for the rest of their lives. Kids will be driving cars for the rest of their lives also so does that mean they should have auto shop also? Probably but there is only so much time in the school day. I guess what I would like to see is a solid description of what a K12 CS curriculum should include with some course/topic descriptions. I have a feeling it would be a really big target that would get shot at a lot.

    • 24. Alan Kay  |  July 20, 2010 at 1:33 pm

      Hi Garth

      The actual question here is not about people’s day to day lives, but about what kinds of perspectives will they have to view the world in which they live, including themselves.

      I can’t imagine that most people would ever have practical need for an understanding of the particle theory of matter and the kinetic motion of those particles theory of heat.

      Could you imagine that having a deep understanding of those related ideas could give them a better perspective for thinking about anything?

      If so, then how would we go about helping them acquire this perspective of ideas that were completely mysterious to the 18th century, and still are for most people today?

      Could you imagine that making systems of particles by programming computers might be an important way to do this?

      That this could be a new way to think about complexity for them? That difficulties with complexity might be a huge problem for the human race today and into the future of these children?



  • 25. Respond to the NRC today! « Computing Education Blog  |  August 2, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    […] 2, 2010 The comments on the National Research Council’s draft Framework for Science Education are due today.  Please do visit and comment on them. Overall, after […]

  • 26. Little Orphan Computer Science  |  September 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

    […] computer science is not in the latest set of STEM standards from the National Academes of Science (What are we? Chopped liver? CS left out of National Academy STEM standards) There are lots of comments there BTW. Leigh Ann Sudol replies in her blog (What are we? […]


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