Get CS into Schools through Math and Science Classes: What we might lose

August 11, 2014 at 8:28 am 6 comments

The August issue of Communications of the ACM (see here) includes a paper in the Viewpoints Education column by Uri Wilensky, Corey E. Brady, and Michael S. Horn on “Fostering Computational Literacy in Science Classrooms.” I was eager to get Uri’s perspective on CS education in high schools into the Viewpoints column after hearing him speak at the January CS Education Research workshop.

Uri suggests that the best way to get computational literacy into high schools is by adding computer science to science classes. He’s done the hard work of connecting his agent-based modeling curriculum to Next Generation Science Standards. In Uri’s model, Computer Science isn’t a “something else” to add to high school. It helps science teachers meet their needs.

Uri isn’t the only one pursuing this model. Shriram and Matthias suggested teaching computer science through mathematics classes in CACM in 2009. Bootstrap introduces computer science at the middle school level as a way to learn Algebra more effectively. Irene Lee’s GUTS (“Growing Up Thinking Scientifically”) introduces computation as a tool in middle school science.

In most states today, computer science is classified as a business/vocational subject, called “Career and Technical Education (CTE).” There are distinct advantages to a model that puts CS inside science and mathematics classes. Professional development becomes much easier. Science and mathematics teachers have more of the background knowledge to pick up CS than do most business teachers. CS becomes the addition of some modules to existing classes, not creating whole new classes.

It’s an idea well worth thinking about.  I can think of three reasons not to pursue CS through math/science model, and the third one may be a show-stopper.

(1) Can science and math teachers help us broaden participation in computing? Remember that the goal of the NSF CS10K effort is to broaden access to computing so as to broaden participation in computing. As Jane Margolis has noted, CTE teachers know how to teach diverse groups of students. Science and mathematics classes have their own problems with too little diversity. Does moving CS into science and mathematics classes make it more or less likely that we’ll attract a more diverse audience to computing?

(2) Do we lose our spot at the table? I’ve noted in a Blog@CACM post that there are computer scientists annoyed that CS is being classified by states as “science” or “mathematics.” Peter Denning has argued that computer science is a science, but cuts across many fields including mathematics and engineering. If we get subsumed into mathematics and computer science classes, do we lose our chance to be a peer science or a peer subject to mathematics? And is that going against the trend in universities? Increasingly, universities are deciding that computer science is its own discipline, either creating Colleges/Schools of CS (e.g., Georgia Tech and CMU) or creating Colleges/Schools of Information/Informatics (e.g., U. Washington, U. Michigan, Drexler, and Penn State).

(3) Do we lose significant funding for CS in schools? Here’s the big one. Currently, computer science is classified as “Career and Technical Education.” As CTE, CS classes are eligible for Perkins funding — which is not available for academic classes, like mathematics or science.

I tried to find out just how much individual schools get from Perkins. Nationwide, over $1.2 billion USD gets distributed. I found a guide for schools on accessing Perkins funds. States get upwards of $250K for administration of the funds. I know that some State Departments of Education use Perkins funding to pay for Department of Education personnel who manage CTE programs. To get any funding, high schools must be eligible for at least $15K. That’s a lot of money for a high school.

The various CS Education Acts (e.g., on the 2011 incarnation and on the 2013 incarnation) are about getting CS classified as STEM in order to access funding set aside for STEM education. As I understand it, none of these acts has passed. Right now, schools can get a considerable amount of funding if CS stays in CTE. If schools move CS to math and science, there is no additional funding available.

Perkins funding is one of the reasons why CS has remained in CTE in South Carolina. It would be nice to have CS in academic programs where it might be promoted among students aiming for college. But to move CS is to lose thousands of dollars in funding. South Carolina has so far decided that it’s not in their best interests.

Unless a CS education act ever passes Congress, it may not make economic sense to move CS into science or mathematics courses. The federal government provides support for STEM classes and CTE classes.  CS is currently in CTE.  We shouldn’t pull it out until it counts as STEM.  This is another good reason to support a CS education act.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  August 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

    To me, education is “Learners First!”

    What is best for the learners here, and for their education overall?

    For example, to pick a more neutral area, in elementary grades, etc., should math and science be taught together making use of the total of the time now spent for them separately?

    NCTM has been fighting this idea for many years. But what is best for the learners? Especially take into account the epistemological foundations of each when considering this question.

    Now where might computing be best for the learners?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 13, 2014 at 5:17 am

      A challenge for integrating math and science more generally, particularly at higher grades, is the effort at preparing students to teach such a wide variety of areas.

      In the end, we don’t make educational decisions “Learners First.” Bloom told us that the best for learners is to have individual tutoring. We don’t do that because it’s too expensive. All decisions we make after that are a compromise on educational quality. Economics keeps us from putting learners first.

      • 3. alanone1  |  August 13, 2014 at 9:27 am

        Well, let’s see … The student/teacher ratio is pretty good in most homes, and if the parents had different priorities they would make a big difference in the experiences of their children’s learning (as opposed e.g. to trying to outsource everything to schools and television/social-media).

        Note: if Bloom is right then schools are hopelessly outnumbered by the 1 on 1 nature of TV and computer/networking. What is the remedy here?

        We don’t abstain from war because it is too expensive. And war (and prisons etc) — and not making progress — are a lot more expensive than education. So I think the “too expensive” reason is just a rationalization for other deeper causes.

        Also, just because it is difficult to get good individual tutoring today, this is not a reason for avoiding putting “Learner’s First” in many other areas of educational process — such as curriculum design. In other words, it’s not a two-valued decision system — there are many many things that can be done to avoid “System first, learner’s last” that we have today.



  • 4. Uri Wilensky  |  August 12, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Mark, our proposal was not meant as an “either or”. I strongly support efforts to incorporate CS into schools as its own subject, its own science. But both of these efforts can happen in parallel. We use math all through the sciences but that doesn’t prevent us from having mathematics as a distinct subject in schools. This is what makes a practice a literacy, that it is useful in a variety of contexts. My ambition is to elevate CS to the literacy level, not just another subject. I think we can make strong arguments that these 2 efforts could be mutually reinforcing, not in opposition.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  August 13, 2014 at 5:07 am

      I agree that it’s not “either or,” and I strongly agree with the goal of computing being a literacy. I was addressing the possibility of only going in through math or science. It raises significant policy implications.

  • 6. Barry Webster  |  August 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Good post and comments.
    Math and Science students certainly can benefit by learning CS concepts and CS approaches to modeling and problem solving. And there is a need in the natural sciences for abilities to analyze data sets in ways CS can help. However, the benefits of separate CS courses are unlikely to be realized by including CS-related units in other subjects. Expecting teachers, whose primary interest is in one subject, to teach a secondary subject within their courses is unlikely to lead to adequate coverage of the secondary subject, specially when they are measured by how well their students learn primary subject areas for standardized tests. This approach marginalizes the importance of CS. (More at


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