Kiki Prottsman: Why American Students Are Trailing in Computer Science

January 11, 2013 at 8:02 am 2 comments

It’s an interesting argument in favor of computational literacy, computing education for everyone.  It’s a pretty accurate description of what happens at the first undergraduate classes.

Imagine, if you will, a world where Americans don’t teach their children math in elementary school. Imagine that children no longer learn addition in first grade, subtraction in second or multiplication and division in third and fourth. Imagine instead that children make it all the way through high school without having any formal presentation of mathematical concepts. Now imagine that a student is observant enough to realize that adults who have a firm grasp on mathematics have much better problem-solving life skills and financial opportunities than adults who don’t. If that student is curious enough to enroll in an undergraduate math class, imagine how frustrating it would be to have the whole of arithmetic, algebra and statistics thrown at you in your very first term. Wouldn’t it feel overwhelming? Wouldn’t you be discouraged… especially if you noticed that several people in the class already seemed to understand the stuff fluently? Wouldn’t it be difficult to perceive the subject as one where you have talent?

This hypothetical may seem ridiculous, but the truth is that a similar situation is being played out in America today with the subject of computer science. For many, computer science isn’t introduced at a k-12 level, so their first exposure comes in an undergraduate classroom, where they’re forced to absorb all of the basic building blocks of computational thinking at lightning speed before they can begin to fathom the concept of programming, design or engineering. To add further blows, a handful of students (often boys) will actually have skills in these areas, making the newcomers feel deficient, awkward and behind.

via Kiki Prottsman: Why American Students Are Trailing in Computer Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Max Hailperin  |  January 11, 2013 at 8:55 am

    I agree this is a well-made argument. Additionally, there is a synergy with a second problem that Prottsman sets aside by asking us to “imagine that a student is observant enough to realize” they should elect to take a CS course.

    Students actual decisions whether to choose CS are much less well-founded. If we built up CS concepts in an incremental, integrated way throughout K-12 education, as Prottsman suggests, this would not only make them more learnable (her goal) but also eliminate the expectation that students make a sight-unseen decision whether to study the subject. I prescribed the same remedy for that second goal in a 1998 letter to the editor of the New York Times:

    (Ignore the title the NYT web site shows above my letter. When the letter appeared in print, there were several related letters all grouped under this title, which actually pertains to one of the others.)

  • 2. Franklin  |  January 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    I am totally in agreement. It’s already “too late” by junior high or high school to reach a lot of kids if they haven’t already had some kind of introduction to computational thinking. So, just as with reading and writing, the focus should be on getting this into early childhood, and elementary school.


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