How did math and science education grow out of math and science departments?

December 3, 2012 at 8:01 am 11 comments

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mathematics became part of the core curriculum, and in the early 20th century, mathematics education started being taken seriously.  The first Chair of mathematics education was created in 1893 — in a mathematics department.

I don’t know how science education research came to be seen as a standalone field.  I know that the earliest Physics Education Researchers (like Lillian McDermott) started (and in Lillian’s case, remain) in Physics.

If you look at most Schools/Colleges/Departments of Education today, there are programs in science education, mathematics education, and sometimes even history or reading education.  At what point did these fields break away from their original domain departments become established in Education?  What was the development path?  Clearly, becoming part of the core curriculum is key.  Then it’s important to teach teachers about it.

I honestly don’t know the answer, and I’m hoping that readers here might be able to lend some light.  What is the developmental path such that computing education is becomes entrenched, part of what we teach teachers about, and something that grows beyond computer science departments?

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Baker Franke  |  December 3, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I think you should strip “How” from your question. I’m not sure I accept the premise that the growth of math and science education had anything to do with those University departments. I always thought the studies grew from the Education department, if one even existed.

    Many K-12 education leaders (think: Dewey) recognized the importance of the natural sciences very early on and began studying ways to make it accessible to children, and turned the study of education into a formal undertaking. I wonder, in fact, if the dependency goes the other way. Schools were teaching maths and sciences but in a hodge-podge of ways and some researchers, or dedicated teachers, sought ways to understand and codify the methods to make it more universally successful. (Sound familiar?)

    That is, a department of education was born out of the opportunity presented by conditions in field.

    I think we’re in a very similar place now with CS Education. Few, but a growing number, recognize the importance of CS education. The way it’s taught is a hodge-podge of methods, theories, practices. Folks such as yourself, recognizing both the need for progress and the need for some acceptable form of universal practice, seek to find the most effective methods which inform us teachers. But I don’t think Universities getting involved alone is what’s going to sway schools. Universities will never form, for example, a department of CS Education unless there exist opportunities for work, study and influence in schools. So, it’s a chicken and egg problem.

    Shifts in education happen generationally, I think.

    What I see on the ground is more and more parents are recognizing that their children are disadvantaged without a CS education. I have really seen an increase in this in the past 10 years. But progress is still slow. I used to hear from parents: “Well, computer science sounds interesting but I don’t think my child really needs it.” Now I hear, “Wow, I’m so glad my child can learn about computer science in school, it’s really so important and an opportunity I never had, but…we’ll see if sally can fit it in her schedule with all the other courses that she really needs to get into college.”

    From where I sit, the “easiest” thing Universities can do to make an impact in K-12 CS education would be to require it (or prefer it) for admission. You’d, of course, have to recognize some set of curricula or courses that constitute acceptable CS education (i.e. MS office certification doesn’t count). But a university acknowledging/publicizing preferential treatment to students with CS education would completely change the way schools, students and parents, view CS and lead to a (bumpy but) very rapid attempt to include CS and scale up. You want a space-race for CS education. For a space-race to happen there needs to be threat. The threat of not getting into college, I think would constitute that threat.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 3, 2012 at 9:13 am

      You may be right, Baker. I can’t find any history of science education. I’m positive that mathematics education grew out of Mathematics departments, not out of Education. I do know that Physics Education Research grew out of Physics departments — in fact, I believe that most Physics Education Researchers still reside in Physics departments. (Our PER group at Georgia Tech has to live in Physics, since we have no Education unit.) Computing Education Research, where it exists, is in Computer Science departments, as far as I can tell.

      What you suggest is reasonable and rational, but I’m not convinced that that’s how humans progress. I’d like to know historically how did math and science education get started as programs in Education.

      • 3. Baker Franke  |  December 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

        I think we’re arguing slightly different things here and therefore not arguing, maybe. I want to ask “DID math and science education come from University departments?”

        I’m making an argument about the EXISTENCE of math and science education in schools and saying that did not come from University departments. Undoubtedly, some pedagogy and materials were developed by and in conjunction with university departments, but the dependency went both ways with methods coming from both bottom up and the top down.

        For a history of science education and the need for it in schools, John Dewey has written a few words on the subject 🙂 But for Dewey of course the need for science, math, and the scientific method in general was born out of the search for dispassionate truth. It was a moral question. Those modes of thinking were necessary for people preparing to live in a democratic society. And I don’t think, Mark, that this is really what you mean.

        I think you’re asking something less fundamental, which is how did the education arms of certain disciplines come from or branch out from their discipline-specific departments. How did the study of working in a particular discipline give rise to the study of how to LEARN how to work in the discipline.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  December 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm

          I’m actually asking something even LESS fundamental than that, Baker. How did departments or programs in math and science education (in Universities) grow out of the discipline/domain departments or programs in mathematics and science (in Universities)? I’m not asking how did the practice of teaching about math or science come to be, nor even (to use your well-chosen words), “How did the study of working in a particular discipline give rise to the study of how to LEARN how to work in the discipline?” I’m asking an organizational/structural question, though I’m also wondering forces led to that organizational/structural change.

          One day, I would like to see computing education appear as a program of study in most University education departments/schools/colleges in the United States. It may be that such programs follow an ebb-and-flow kind of pattern (as Cecily suggests: We have “family and consumer science education” today, but maybe not tomorrow). I see that as being important for long-term viability of computing education in schools. I’m wondering when math education or science education formal programs (in University education units) first got established, and how.

          Interesting factoid: The originator of the Klein Bottle created the first Chair of Mathematics Education in the world.

    • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      I don’t think it is necessary for universities to require CS for admission. It would probably be enough to allow it to be counted as meeting a “math” or “science” requirement. A lot of students would rather take CS than calculus, but the “4 years of math” requirement leaves them little choice.

  • 6. techkim  |  December 3, 2012 at 10:50 am

    “What is the developmental path such that computing education is becomes entrenched, part of what we teach teachers about, and something that grows beyond computer science departments?”

    I think it starts with technology in general. Technology has mostly been dealt with as a tool to use in education, not necessarily something you have to teach and learn about. Sure, there’s been technology standards defined that include basic concepts, historical context, social impact as well as digital literacy and citizenship, but these standards are all supposed to be incorporated into the existing curriculum. As a technology teacher, I was all about trying to incorporate tech learning into other subject areas and not just teaching tech for tech’s sake, but I did meet with resistance because what I wanted to help incorporate always seemed to be something new. I also discovered that teaching computer science concepts in the K-8 space was definitely not the norm.

    In the Master of Education program I’m in now, I would say a majority of my peers would be happy to have all tech left at their classroom door because they want to focus on their subject area. I can’t really blame them because keeping track of technology implications in education can be overwhelming. It seems like it is the educational technologists in schools and districts that try to ensure technology standards are incorporated into classrooms and I feel like educational technology is one place in post-secondary teacher education programs where computer science concepts should be incorporated.

  • 7. Cecily  |  December 3, 2012 at 10:56 am

    I think this depends at least in part on how educators view their primary identity– are they educators with an interest in physics or physicists with an interest in education? In order for a primary interest to be sustainable as a major, there needs to be a job path that goes with that interest. I suspect that one of the reasons that physics education remains in physics(and computer science education is likely to do the same) is that there are not a lot of jobs for full time physics teachers– a lot of kids just takes a bunch of biology and chemistry in high school.

    I also think that there is a pendulum that swings back and forth in education at the secondary level between college prep and vocational prep. Right now, there is a very strong preference for college prep, and a lot of the vocational prep programs are feeling the squeeze. SUU used to have a pretty big business ed program– we still have bulletin boards and several faculty that say that they were hired on as business ed faculty. That program has disappeared and the family and consumer science education program seems to be going the same direction. A lot of the high school graduation requirements in Utah have been adjusted to require more math, science, and English to help students prepare for college.

    From a historical perspective, computer science at the university probably grew out of using mainframe computers, and then punch card machines, and so on and so forth. Computer science at the secondary level is generally lumped with business because schools first taught typing, then replaced typewriters with computers, and then started teaching a little programming. At the high school level, educators don’t have offices- their offices are their classrooms, and they stay in the same room all day, so it is important to maximize the usage of the equipment. Even though computer science and typing have little in common as intellectual disciplines, they have a lot in common in terms of equipment required, and that is why most computer science teachers at the secondary level are also required to teach at least some typing.

    • 8. dennisfrailey  |  December 6, 2012 at 7:17 am

      I was there when CS started at universities and in high schools. In universities, it certainly was in the era of mainframe computers. It started in math and EE departments: the math departments focused mainly on how to use computers (evolving into computer science) and the EE departments focused mainly with how to build them (evolving into computer engineering). I was a student at Purdue in the 1960’s and recall well how, in those days, numerical analysis (among other math topics) was considered essential for computer science majors. Today’ it’s rare to find it as an elective in a CS program.

      Regarding high school, things are more complicated. In the early 60’s computers tended to be things students did as special projects for science fairs. Computing entered the curriculum in the 70’s with the advent of minicomputers and dumb terminals, which made things more affordable and accessible. But whether through a math teacher, a physics teacher or a business teacher depended on the school – it tended to depend on having a faculty member interested enough to make it happen.

      • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

        My first CS course was in high school in 1970—the high school had an IBM 1130, and we programmed in Fortran using punched cards. The teacher was from the math department.

  • 10. dennisfrailey  |  December 5, 2012 at 10:20 am

    The answer is simple but not politically correct. The best math students were, for the most part, not interested in education and the students interested in education could not, for the most part, handle the tough math courses. The separation made this worse. Just look at the SAT scores of students going into education vs those going into math.

    A secondary factor was that women were more interested in education than men and in those days there was terrible discrimination against women.

    • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  December 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Dennis, that may be true today, but I see no evidence that that was true when math education was established as a separate field 1890-1920.


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