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 a lack of skill,” Armstrong said. “Once I learned that I could use math to simulate physics, or simulate biology in practice—that’s when it became interesting to me. So all through high school I was not particularly interested in math, and it took me probably through the middle of my university career until I started to see that.”

“Time and time again if I think something is too hard and I just give up, I’m disappointed,” Eng said, explaining that she passed on taking a computer science class in high school because of that same misconception—that it was too hard. “Life is hard, but you can’t always just give up. That’s the message I give high school students—if I keep working on it, then eventually I can get there. It’s just not giving up.”

“I think for those students who think they’re not good at math, I don’t necessarily believe that. I think it’s more that they don’t know how they’re interested, and that application is key,” Armstrong said.

Misconception: Boys are more inclined to study CS than girls.

Three of the four panelists were women, a testament to the falsehood of one of the major stereotypes among computer science students—that it only appeals to mathematically inclined boys who enjoy video games and web design. Coincidentally, the majority of teachers at the conference were also women. The key to breaking down this stereotype, is finding ways to encourage girls to take an interest in CS.

“Almost every single woman I know in CS, took a class for a reason, like, their boyfriend is taking the class and wanted them to take it with them,” said Krista Davis, a 2005 UW CSE graduate who now works at Google. “In my case, it was that my computer was acting up and I wanted to see if I could fix it, which of course I couldn’t, but that’s what got me in…all you need is that first class to realize you’re good at something.”

Misconception: CS graduates end up working 18-hour days, or 60+ hours a week.

Everyone on the panel vehemently disagreed with this statement. And although all agreed that, like most jobs, schedules can vary, they all expressed that generally speaking the workload is more than manageable.

“I don’t work 60 hour weeks. Maybe some people at Google do, but I don’t,” Davis said.

“My normal work day in the middle of a project is a normal 8 hour workday with a lunch,” Armstrong said, adding that hours can get long at the end of a project cycle, but that the company makes up for it with generous part-time and sabbatical weeks. “It’s only hard to see friends or go to the gym for a couple of months every two years.”

After shattering the misconceptions, the panel moved on to answering questions from teachers on how to break down barriers, appeal to students, and open the floodgates for CS opportunities at younger ages.

Question: The population of kids that are taking computer science is small. How can high school students be encouraged to get involved?

Answer: Showing students how CS applies to their lives on a daily basis by integrating elements of the curriculum into other classes.

“When I went to high school, my exposure to computers was Excel, Powerpoint, and Word. Really it boils down to exposure, and the type of exposure that is the happy welcoming thing for a high school student,” Eng said. “What really influenced me was taking classes and talking to people. It doesn’t really matter what area you go into—whether it’s biology, or business, or law—all of these computer science concepts can be applied in everything that you go into. If I had known that when I was in high school, that would have turned a light bulb on.”

Question: What other classes besides math and computer science have helped you in your career?

Answer: Drama, literature, art, debate—anything creative that bolsters thinking outside the box, and working in group environments.

“For me, my history classes in particular, because a big part of what I do is writing stories. My job from a technical aspect is writing software, sure, but I got into it because of the creative side—so anywhere I can draw inspiration from,” Armstrong said.

“Everyone has to have the technical aspect, but what really helps you stand out is the creative. For me it was English,” said Crystal Hoywer, a 2002 UW CSE graduate who now works at Microsoft.

“For me it was orchestra. It really helped me learn to have focus,” Eng said. “It’s finding that passion and being able to pursue that passion, and being able to find that same type of passion in the work that I pursue today—know what that end goal is and that that’s the thing that I want, that is what keeps me going.”

“The area of your brain that are weak, those are the ones you should strengthen. For me that was English,” Davis said.

Question: What do career prospects look like for students graduating with a CS degree?

Answer: Pretty darn good, both in terms of the number of jobs out there, and what they pay. According to Lazowska, the starting salary for CS graduates who take jobs at startups ranges from $60,000 to $70,000. The starting salary at larger companies can be as high as $80,000. And, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 70 percent of new jobs in the science and engineering fields over the next 10 years are projected to be in computer science, he added.

“I am very against choosing a major for vocational reasons—you have to find something you’re passionate about,” Lazowska said. “But I have newspaper reporters come to me and ask if students should be majoring in CS, and I say, well, what do you want them to major in, journalism?”

However, it can take time to find a job that you want, Armstrong added.

“The first job I had out of college was unpaid. The second barely paid. I had six jobs before I got to the one I wanted to keep—the one I have now,” he said. “In the game industry there’s a particularly high turnover rate, not because of dissatisfaction, but because people work on a project and when it’s done they decide there’s something else they want to work on.”

Question: What can students do to help prepare them for the job market while still in school?

Answer: Do internships-while you’re still in schools.

“I found out really late that it’s helpful to do internships while you’re in college,” Eng said, adding that after graduation she had a hard time pinning down a job. She started building up her resume and application experience by working part-time at a local startup, participating in a six-month internship at Intel in California, and interviewing numerous times for local companies. “By the third time I interviewed at Amazon, I got the job.”

Question: How can teachers break through the misconceptions and get students interested and excited about taking CS classes in school?

Answer: Be creative in the way you market the class to students. Design flashy fliers that talk less about computer science, and more about the fun and varying applications of CS that will appeal to students’ individual interests.

“It’s all about advertising and branding,” Eng said. “Finding that passion—that’s the key thing.”

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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