No cost for cheerleading or band instead of CS? Offer remedial classes for those who missed CS?
I got beat up a bit after my talk at TTU Tapestry a couple weeks ago. Two teachers from the same school stopped me at lunch, after my keynote, and complained about how we at Georgia Tech run our CS1 for Engineers in MATLAB. “How can you expect students to be able to succeed in a programming course, with no high school CS? Why don’t you offer some starter course with no programming first?” I tried to explain that students do succeed in all three of our CS1’s with no previous programming experience, and our data suggest that students learn and succeed (e.g., relatively small percentage drop-out or fail) in these courses. (This is in sharp contrast to the Peter Norvig piece about learning Java in 21 days.)
As the teachers went on with their complaints about me and Georgia Tech, more of the story came out. Some of their students had gone to Georgia Tech in Engineering, had floundered in the CS for Engineers course, and were calling these high school teachers regularly for help. “They spend a huge amount of hours working in labs! More than others in their class, because they didn’t get the chance to take CS in high school. Some kids have band or cheerleading, and they can’t fit CS in. That shouldn’t mean that they have to spend so much extra time in lab to catch up!”
It’s that last argument that I had the most trouble with. Their students didn’t have the background knowledge in CS. It seems clear to me that those students should have to work harder than those that have the background knowledge. That the teachers thought that the extra work was unusual or extreme surprised me. There was an implicit assumption that, because these students didn’t get the background classes due to band and cheerleading, we at Georgia Tech should provide remedial classes. To be clear, it’s not that the CS wasn’t offered at their high school. Their school has two CS teachers. It’s just that cheerleading and band took priority over preparing for the Engineering program at Georgia Tech, which requires computer science.
What is the expectation of high school teachers for the workload in CS1? What is the expectation of high school teachers for what College CS classes will demand? Is it reasonable to expect Colleges to provide the introductory classes that others get in high school? Maybe it is reasonable for Colleges to provide more high school level classes, especially if we want to grow enrollment. But I do worry about the perspective that says that it’s reasonable to skip the intellectual background classes because of non-academic activities. I have nothing against non-academic activities like band and cheerleading. However, the non-academic activities are not an excuse for a lack of background knowledge for higher-education — and if you do miss the background classes, you should expect to have to work harder when you get to College.