Our problem in CS Ed is too much utility

April 3, 2013 at 1:06 am 4 comments

One of my insights from SIGCSE 2013 was about the problem of “eating our seed corn,” and how this stems from too much utility.  For most STEM fields (like mathematics, physics, or biology), a little bit of it isn’t enough to do much.  One course in Biology does not lead to a lab technician job, and much less a job doing surgery.  A student needs a significant amount of STEM learning in most disciplines before being useful to an employer.

Not true for computer science, and this has been a problem since the 1960’s.  In The Computing Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger describes how companies were desperate to identify and hire programmers to deal with the severe labor shortage as computers moved into business settings.  Knowing anything about computing made you useful.  Not necessarily good, but useful.

And that’s still our problem today:

  • We cram so much into our first and second University courses, because our students want an internship as soon as possible, and we want them to know something about good process and good engineering, even if they don’t know enough about computer science to really understand it yet. Yes, those who complete a degree get even higher salaries, but a lot give up early because it’s enough.
  • We desperately need more high school teachers, but if a high school teacher learns enough computer science to teach it well, she also knows enough to leave high school and get a much higher-paying job in industry.
  • Meanwhile, because computer science is so useful, our university enrollments are climbing.

In a sense, these are good problems to have.  I would not want computer science to be less useful.  But the high utility of computer science knowledge does pose problems that educators in other STEM disciplines may not appreciate or understand.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. geekymom  |  April 3, 2013 at 6:14 am

    I would say another problem with its utility is all the one off workshops it spawns. Which leads to fewer enrollments in high school. Just go to CS camp! That’s enough to get you started!

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  April 3, 2013 at 11:52 am

      I would be interested in your data for this claim. Our GaComputes evidence suggests that after-school workshops, Girl Scout weekend activities, and summer camps in computing generates more demand for middle school and high school CS classes.

  • 3. Peter Donaldson  |  April 5, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Hello Mark,
    another issue that I think also links to Computer Science’s utility is that educators who do teach in secondary school’s often get drawn in to applying their computing knowledge and problem solving skills to school wide issues at the expense of being able to use that time to think and create better ways of developing this knowledge and skill in their own students.

    I’ve said to several of my colleagues recently that it’s a bit like an English teacher having to spend any non class contact time they had creating written content for their school or the Business studies teacher managing all of the finances.

    As an educator my primary purpose should be to inspire the next generation and equip them to hopefully achieve even more than previous generations have. It’s definitely important that I continue to keep my knowledge and skills up to date but the experience I develop should be able to be fed back into making the learning experience of my students that much richer.

    I think this is particularly important for us due to the relatively recent nature of the field of Computing and the number of under developed areas we have when it comes to our pedagogical content knowledge.

  • 4. Rebecca Dovi  |  April 8, 2013 at 8:43 am

    The problem of well qualified HS teachers is something we are experiencing here in Virginia. I work with our local NMSI grant program as the Computer Science coordinator. This program has great success of building new cs programs at the high school level. 30 of the 75 schools in the program have the AP Computer Science class. Many of these are new programs created by this grant.

    One thing we have found is a certain number of teachers take the training that gets them ready for teaching the APCS class and quickly leave to work in industry. It is hard to blame them. With high school teacher’s salaries frozen due to the recession it is hard to blame someone for leaving a job that pays $45,000, with no sign of improving, for a job that doubles that salary. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out as the CS10K initiatives move forward.


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