Teachers Explore How to Integrate Computer Science into K-12 Curriculum at UW Conference

8/9/10

Although computer science may be one of the most applicable academic tracks to pursue today, teachers are having a hard time convincing students—and administrators—that the subject is worthy of a place in K-12 curriculum. Figuring out how to entice student, parents, and school districts to embrace and support computer science curricula in public education was a topic at center stage at the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department’s CS4HS event last week.

Around 50 high school teachers from Washington and its surrounded states packed into the fifth annual three-day Google-sponsored conference, which brings math and science teachers together with computer science professors, alumni, and professionals for lectures, workshops, and discussions focused on how to better teach and integrate computer science in K-12 education.

The key is getting teachers in subjects other than computer science to find ways to utilize CS in their classrooms, according to Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at UW, and organizer of the CS4HS conference.

“We’re trying to get teachers from outside fields that are underrepresented. We’re not looking for CS teachers,” Lazowska says. “We have a many teachers here who were in other fields for 20 years, and are now going into teaching.” This, he says, makes them perfectly primed to showcase the real-life applications of computer science within the classroom, rather than the common misconceptions that pigeonhole CS classes to a smaller, niched group of students.

At a Tuesday morning session entitled “Computing Careers Panel,” four University of Washington computer science alumni shared their experiences as post-grad CS students, touching on the burgeoning job market, and ideas for making CS more appealing to younger students. One of the topics on the minds of many of the teachers present was how to break down the common academic and the real world misconceptions that keep many students from taking an interest in CS. Here’s some of what the panelists had to say.

Misconception: The only job out there for CS graduates is programming.

Of the four panelists present, only one spends a large portion of the day programming on a regular basis. The others work heavily in more conceptual design, product development, and team management.

“It’s a common misconception that computer science is programming. It’s problem solving—it’s building, building, building,” said Margaux Eng, a 2004 UW CSE students who now works at Amazon in the project development and retail systems department. “There’s really a whole world of other problems that people are solving out there.”

Misconception: CS jobs are solitary and require sitting in front of a computer all day long.

In fact, the panelists emphasized, CS is a highly group-oriented activity.

“The environment that my job is supposed to resemble is a kindergarten classroom,” said Tam Armstrong, a 2004 UW CSE graduate and character engineer at video game developer Bungie, the company behind the extremely popular first-person shooter Halo. Armstrong says he talks all day long.

“It’s never that scenario where I’m alone at my desk all day—there’s probably only 20 minutes in my day where I get uninterrupted work in,” he says. “I program all day, but it involves a lot of social skills and group working…there are times I will sit at my desk and write code—barring those interruptions I was talking about before—but any time I’m architecting a system or designing a new feature, that always involves other people.”

Misconception: Only top-tier math and science students will excel in CS.

“I was definitely not the strongest math student by any stretch, because I didn’t know why I should care about it in particular, and I attributed my own lack of interest to … Next Page »

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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