We need computing in schools, in whatever category will work

June 24, 2014 at 8:48 am 8 comments

At the NCWIT Summit this year, I heard an interesting concern.  If CS counts as a mathematics or science course towards high school graduation requirements, will that make CS even less diverse?  Should we keep CS as a business topic (elective) where the women and under-represented minorities are?

I took up that question for my Blog@CACM post for this month: Why Counting CS as Science or Math is Not Considered Harmful. I argue that our goal is universal computational literacy, with everyone using computing in every class and everyone taking CS.  I don’t really care how it gets a foothold in schools.  It was fun to write about Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and Andy diSessa, pointing out that they were talking about these ideas long time before computational thinking.


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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  June 25, 2014 at 9:44 am

    While I agree with your statement that the long-term goal is universal CS offerings, I’m somewhat perplexed by how nonchalant your argument seems toward math and science. In the article, you link to the Freakonomics post about how math literacy should be better. And yet you seem to be okay with reducing the amount of math required (by allowing CS to replace math courses). It also seems odd that your objection to counting programming languages as foreign language is bad because it “removes something useful;” the phrasing seems to suggest that HS math and science courses are not useful.

    I guess I was disappointed based on the title. My concern about counting CS as math is based on this question: What does it mean in practice? In practice, the fourth year of HS math is generally calculus. This is the students’ first exposure to thinking about continuous variables, infinite sequences, etc. Counting CS as math, in practice, would involve replacing their only exposure to “continuous thinking” with another year of what are essentially discrete concepts. To me, that seems harmful. I had hoped, based on the title, the article would have presented an evidence-based counterargument that replacing calculus would not have a significant impact on numerical literacy.

    I’m not suggesting that CS shouldn’t be in the HS curriculum, because it absolutely should be. I’m just not convinced that the 3 math + 1 CS model (which Code.org advocates colleges change their admission standards to!) is an acceptable way to do it.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  June 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      I’m pretty convinced (by Nathan Ensmenger’s arguments, among others) that calculus isn’t needed by computer scientists at all. For me, I know what I would choose between one fewer courses in math or science, versus no foreign language at all. The Freakonomics folks are explicitly saying that more courses does not improve financial literacy.

      • 3. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  June 25, 2014 at 11:09 pm

        I actually agree that calculus–particularly multiple semesters of college-level calculus–is not necessary for writing code. Where I disagree is the claim that it “isn’t needed … at all.” If we are talking about necessary skills to train people for jobs, sure, calculus isn’t needed. Neither are literature/poetry, art, history, philosophy, foreign language, chemistry, biology, physics, music, nor many other subjects. But we require students, particularly college graduates, to have a broad understanding of a variety of concepts. It is about creating intellectually mature adults that have a foundation of knowledge to interact with people from other disciplines.

        To be clear, I am referring to that single year of HS calculus that often corresponds to the first semester of college calculus: instantaneous rate of change, limits and convergence, the idea that it is possible to calculate the area under a curve. These concepts are intellectually important because they challenge intuitive notions about calculation. They force you to accept that there are limits to what you can do with common sense, and sometimes common sense is wrong. I think those are critically important lessons for anyone preparing to go to college.

        As for the foreign language discussion (I’m actually neutral on this point, because I also think this substitution is misguided), the claim of “no foreign language at all” seems off the mark to me. Again, in practice, we’re talking about introducing a single year of CS. For college-bound students, the requirement that I encountered in IN required 3 years of one language or 2 years each of 2 languages. So I don’t see how allowing a single year of CS to count eliminates the foreign language requirement entirely.

        Ultimately, if I had to make a choice to cut something, I would go with allowing CS as a science course, which probably means replacing physics. It’s not ideal, but I am much more accepting of that than cutting calculus.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  June 26, 2014 at 10:06 am

          I made an argument along these lines in a 2003 paper with Elliot Soloway, using the words and ideas of Alan Perlis from 1961: “Computing is more important than Calculus.”

          • 5. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  June 27, 2014 at 9:36 am

            I like that argument much better. Can’t say much for the mustache though… 😉 It’s admittedly hard to give up my own preconceived bias, but I very much like the point that CS is about process.

        • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 27, 2014 at 2:31 am

          Michael, most high school students don’t take calculus. For that matter, most don’t take physics either. I think that the best bet is for CS to count as “a math or science” course, so that students could choose what they bump a year later in order to get CS sooner.

          • 7. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  June 27, 2014 at 9:53 am

            I was curious about whether or not that was true for college-bound HS school students, specifically. Doing a quick search, I found that the rates of students taking calculus are significantly lower than what I expected. I seem to have ingrained my own personal anecdote as representative: My HS graduating class had 150 students, about 25-30 of whom were in calculus. We had fewer than 20 students from that class go to college, and almost all of them were in calculus. That seems to be more of an anomaly than what I thought it was.

            I’m not sure if I’m convinced yet, but I am definitely rethinking my stance on this issue.

            • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 27, 2014 at 12:26 pm

              I’m often guilty of reasoning from unrepresentative samples myself. case studies are useful for figuring out questions to ask, but they often don’t generalize well.


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