Archive for January 11, 2012

New curriculum for CS in UK Schools

I have heard a rumor that the UK “Computing in Schools” report is coming out tomorrow. The commentary is starting today.  The below quote on what’s going to be in the new curriculum is quite striking — that’s a dramatic CS curriculum!  The BBC report calls the new curriculum “open source” (what is an “open source curriculum”? A curriculum that uses open source tools?), and does raise the issue (my paraphrase), “Great, now you have a significant curriculum — who’s going to teach it?!?”

“Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations,” he said.

Computer games entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, an adviser to Mr Gove, envisages a new curriculum that could have 16-year-olds creating their own apps for smartphones and 18-year-olds able to write their own simple programming language.

via BBC News – School ICT to be replaced by computer science programme.

January 11, 2012 at 8:21 am 2 comments

People do things even if they won’t be the best, or even great

On Saturday, I ran the Disney World Half-Marathon with my brother and son.  This was my third half marathon — I did my first in 1989, and I did one last October, so this is sort-of my second.  The Disney World Half-Marathon was huge.  About 27,000 people were registered.  22,000 finished the race. I was interested in the gender split: 10,000 men, and 12,000 women.

I thought about Larry Summers’ controversial speech when he was at Harvard, where he argued that the lack of participation in STEM fields by women (specifically, why women may have been underrepresented “in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”) was due to a lack of ability.

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.

The chain of reasoning in Summers’ argument (as I read it) is that there are too few women in tenure-track STEM faculty positions because women have lower aptitude (on average, or at best) than men in STEM.  Participation, he seems to believe, is a function of aptitude — people do what they are good at.  I am interested in why women choose or not-choose to participate in STEM fields. I believe that the aptitude for STEM is likely similar between genders, but I question the relationship that he is suggesting.  Is it necessarily true that people only pursue activities in which they have aptitude?

The best women are significantly slower than the best men in long distance running, including the half marathon.  I don’t know much about physiology of athletics, but I could well believe that the differences are physical.  Men may have greater aptitude for distance running than women.  Yet, the Disney World Half Marathon is 20% more female than male.  All those women are running the race, despite the fact that they are unlikely to win.  I don’t know if most half marathon races are significantly more female.  It may very well be that the Disney World Half Marathon is an outlier, and that would make it even more interesting.  Why is it an outlier?  What draws women more to that race, despite the fact that they likely won’t do as well as the men?

I am not a great runner.  My time was in the bottom half of male performers 45-49 years old in the race.  I still enjoyed the experience and am glad that I did it.  I am proud that I finished.  I might do it again sometime.  I have been pursuing this activity, despite the fact that I am unlikely to win at it.  I don’t have particular aptitude to reach the top in this field.

Mark, son, and brother running at Disney World

Of course, running a race is a much lower cost than choosing a career.  The point, though, is the same.  People do things for many reasons, not just because they’re going to be excellent.  A lack of aptitude does not mean there will be no or little participation.  Aptitude may not even be a significant factor in participation.

If it isn’t aptitude, what does draw people to activities, pursuits, or careers?  If the Disney World Half Marathon is unusual, it might be because it’s fun.  It was the most fun race I’ve ever run, with Disney characters, clowns, marching bands, and even a gospel choir (at mile 13, to sing you to the finish).  Fun has something to do with why people pursue activities.

Larry Summers has been beat up enough over his comments, and he has apologized repeatedly.  Many of the commentators were concerned about the research base for his remarks, whether women could make it to the top of a field, and whether there really is a different aptitude distribution for women and men.  I’m raising a different question.  Maybe there are variables that are more important than aptitude.  Climate, culture, sense of fun, sense of belonging, sense of success (of being “good enough” — I was “good enough” to finish, and that was enough for me), sense of fitting in, and sense of accomplishment (even if not excellence) may play more significant roles.  These are important variables to consider if we want to draw more people into computing.  We may not be able to improve anyone’s aptitude. We can make computing a place where people want to be.

January 11, 2012 at 8:00 am 11 comments

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