No cost for cheerleading or band instead of CS? Offer remedial classes for those who missed CS?

July 19, 2011 at 8:56 am 8 comments

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.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Byrne  |  July 19, 2011 at 10:23 am

    IMO, the HS teachers are being ridiculous. If a student in HS spends more time at football practice than doing their homework, their HS teachers would both expect them to fall behind and have to spend extra time to catch up, and they most certainly wouldn’t blame themselves for expecting the students to keep up. Yet when their students choose what is essentially an extra-curricular activity over something relevant to their educational plan, they blame Tech for high expectations? How is this remotely reasonable?

    Engineering, unlike the vast majority of high school, is hard and requires commitment. If a student chooses something “fun” over something academic, then it is completely reasonable for the student to pay a price for that decision later. Spending extra time in the lab to catch up is HOW IT WORKS in Engineering, whether it’s with CS or a weak calculus background or just less of a knack for finite element analysis or whatever.

    OTOH, it’s not a huge surprise that HS teachers don’t get this, since the proportion of them who actually majored in Engineering in college is likely very, very close to zero. Maybe I have a weird perspective on this, having double majored in Engineering and a social science, but the fact of the matter is that, at the undergraduate level, Engineering REALLY IS HARDER. I did about an order of magnitude more work per credit hour in my Engineering classes, with a couple small exceptions.

    The other important issue here is how different a typical engineering curriculum is from a typical liberal arts curriculum. 400-level engineering classes typically require one or more 300-level courses as prereqs, and those typically have 200-level requirements, etc. Most liberal arts majors have substantially less sequential structure. Missing any one particular liberal arts course doesn’t set a student back the same way that missing one course in engineering does. I strongly suspect that most HS teachers, particularly the ones complaining, do not understand or appreciate this.

    BTW, who are these college kids who are going back to their HS teachers for help?

  • 2. Michael Kadri  |  July 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    I agree, it is ridiculous for college students to call their high school teachers for help. They need to learn to find help closer to where they are. Unfortunately, because CS courses in high schools, if at all offered, are “elective”, they are either not rigorous enough or at best not taken seriously by students and administration. Teacher need to maintain good passing rates, while not many students are motivated enough to do a good job. It is not required in order to graduate. I have been teaching different CS courses for a number of years at my high school, and I do come from an IT professional background. CS in my humble opinion, is best learned by scaffolding that is building on previously learned skills like how math is taught in high schools. Algebra-1 then Geometry then Alebra-2 Trig then if successful, Pre Calc then Calc. To throw them into AP level computer course without a prior introductory programming course, has been disastrous in my experience. Of course, this does not apply to the highly motivated students.
    As long as CS is not mandated as a requirement for graduation in high schools, it will remain an issue. There is no silver bullet.

  • 3. Cynthia Lee  |  July 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    While I agree with the idea that choosing fun over academics is inevitably (and rightly) going to cost students in the long-term, I’m not so sure that there aren’t important messages or lessons to be gleaned from these complaints.

    First, I simply can’t fathom having turned to a high school teacher to help me with my undergraduate classes. So, something very foreign to my experience is going on there and it makes me curious what that is. What would any of us have done if we needed help in an undergraduate course? Gone to the professor? To a TA? Worked with friends in the class or made new friends in the class if need be? Enlisted our personal networks–called up an old friend or family member? Hired a tutor? I’m trying to ask myself what would make me choose to contact a high school teacher ahead of anything on this list. Do these students feel dramatically less comfortable approaching a professor or TA than other students? Why? They don’t have friends in their classes and don’t feel comfortable making them? Why not? No computer-savvy personal network, no parents who work in software, no money to hire a private tutor? (not surprising that these wouldn’t be true for many/most students, but worth keeping in mind impacts of class distinctions)

    Second, whether or not these students are working a reasonable workload, they clearly *believe* they are being given an unreasonable workload. That is likely going to impact their emotional state and disposition to continue in the major. Mike Byrne above said of several qualities inherent to an engineering program, “I strongly suspect that most HS teachers, particularly the ones complaining, do not understand or appreciate [these things].” I agree, but that means that we’re getting students who don’t understand or appreciate those things either. A conscious effort to “reprogram” students, and to aid in this transition from the mentality they (evidently) have been given in HS, to a mentality that will be successful college may be necessary.

    Lastly, if the number of periods in a day in HS simply doesn’t allow for CS and band or other worthy activities, I hope that doesn’t lead us to dismiss students who choose those activities. Well-rounded students bring vitality and new ideas to the discipline. Also, I’m not sure it is fair to characterize these students as fun-seeking in an irresponsible way (not saying that anyone in this thread had done that). They may have been under the impression that doing those kinds of extracurriculars was important to getting into the college in the first place, and that they could worry about what to do in college after they got there. Not a great strategy, perhaps, but for young people who are faithfully taking their cues from various mentors who may have been telling them that, it doesn’t strike me as a necessarily unreasonable course of action.

    Apologies for the length. I actually agree with you more than the sheer volume of the above quibbles and questions might seem to imply!

  • 4. Alex Ruthmann  |  July 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Band was an academic class for me (and is for many students). I went on to study music (and engineering and CS) as part of an interdisciplinary degree. Should students who want to major in CS or Engineering only take STEM courses? It seems that the NSF is funding (and looking to fund more) interdisciplinary projects at the nexus of CS, STEM and the Arts and Humanities. There are also lots of jobs out there that require skills in both arts and sciences.

    I agree with your central points, but disagree that classes like band and the other arts are “non-academic.” The creative economy sector is needing more and more computational thinkers. The arts for me was the doorway into CS… at the undergraduate level.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am

      Alex, I don’t think that anyone in this thread has suggested that students who aim to major in STEM should only take STEM classes. You’re right — band is an academic class. But as you point out, it’s not STEM. Any choice has its cost. If a student chooses to use an academic class slot with Band (I don’t know of anywhere that counts Cheerleading as an academic course), then the student need to be sure to get the requisite background with other academic class slots, or expect to be playing catch-up in College.

  • 6. Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser  |  July 20, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I agree with Cynthia. As a HS teacher I was often party to the conversations that students would have with each other about the recommendations they received from teachers, guidance counselors, parents, or even books and websites. All of these sources told the students that in addition to grades and 4 years of the 4 common disciplines the best things they could do were to show diversity on their resume and application. While teaching I was often appalled at the sheer number of extra curricular activities that students would take in the name of getting into a good college.

    Engineering is such a specific discipline that perhaps it does require more work or preparation – but students are constantly bombarded with “get into college” as the goal line – not preparing for the work that will follow. Admissions departments need to talk to Barrons, the National Association of Guidance Counselors, and the media about how preparations for an Engineering degree differ from a standard liberal arts preparation.

    Students and guidance counselors can only take their cues from the information sources they have. Its time to get our admissions departments to put out letters or information about STEM fields with the other mailings that already go to schools.

  • 7. gflint  |  July 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Teaching in a state that has few high schools with any CS helps me understand those teachers concerns. But from the sounds of things it is the students and councilors fault that they were ill-prepared for Engineering course work. It also sounds like the students can catch up by working their tail off, something they are probably not used to doing. Working your tail off in college no longer seems to be in vogue. I do think that colleges have to make available courses or solutions to help students fill in holes left in the high school curriculum for various reasons. But there does have to be a point where if the student does not have the preparation then they need to switch majors. In Montana most of those holes can be filled in through a junior college. Has a four year degree now just become a five or six year degree? Yep but that is the way the cookie crumbles.

  • 8. Alfred Thompson  |  July 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Guidance departments at many high schools seem to have interesting ideas about what students should take in HS. For many of them this means helping students get into a good university with less concern about their success once there. I had a guidance counselor admit this straight out once. This means diversity (music, sports including cheerleading and dance team), foreign languages, and other courses that make ones transcript look good. CS doesn’t do that especially as it is hard (or as I prefer to put it an academically rigorous course) which may mean a hit to the old GPA. Plus universities don’t ask for it. So it falls down the priority list.

    A student who has room or interest should take music. Students should be involved in sports. Though, in my opinion, not at the expense of academics. A lot more students will turn pro in computer science than in cheerleading (or music for that matter). Of course I also believe that a good computer science course is beneficial to students in most if not all academic areas. If high schools paid more attention to helping students succeed in university they’d all be better off.


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