Embracing K–12 Computer Science Education

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Today, computing technology is part of everyday life and every field. California’s booming tech industry has more jobs than people to fill them. Yet in one area, computer science lags behind: K–12 education.

That shortcoming is evident nationwide. Most school districts, including those in California, don’t offer any computer science classes. Until recently, the classes students could access didn’t count toward California graduation requirements. The state has no curriculum standards or single subject teaching credential in computer science education.

Jennifer Wang, a computer science education outreach manager at Google who earned her Ph.D. in engineering, science, and math education at UC Berkeley and has participated in Cal Teach Berkeley courses as both a student and presenter, provides insights into the gaps. Currently researching factors that influence girls to go into computer science, she hypothesizes that a shortage of qualified teachers and a focus on other standards and requirements have led schools to offer so little computer science education. But most of all, Jennifer believes lack of awareness keeps many students away.

“If you don’t have exposure to computer science, how can you know whether you do or don’t like it? We need both teachers and families to encourage kids to try it. Corporations can also help by showing the variety of people working in computer science and how important it is,” she says.

Jennifer herself had no computer science experience until her first year as a UC Berkeley undergraduate. An electrical engineering and computer sciences major, she says, “In my introductory courses, I learned the power of computer science. It offers a unique way of thinking and problem solving that takes creativity and innovation. There’s a learning opportunity to imagine something and make it real that’s empowering. Even if you’re not in a technical position, I think it’s useful to know how to program. It’s important to understand how to create the technology that’s such a big part of our lives now.”

Unlike Jennifer, Cal Teach student Jessica Allen was introduced to computer science at an early age. The daughter of a high school and community college math and computer science teacher, Jessica says, “My first memory of computer science is from second grade. I was bored with math in school, so my father taught me some computer science. I created an algorithm for long division.”

In May, Jessica will graduate from Berkeley with a double major in math and computer science as well as her teaching credential. She also took part in the Berkeley Engineering Research Experiences for Teachers (BERET) program, which provided a paid summer research fellowship pairing her with East Oakland public school teacher Avi Zellman and UC Berkeley computer science professor Richard Karp.

“We’re interested in furthering computer science education through these summer placements and looking at where it can be incorporated in the Cal Teach curriculum,” says Benedikt Harrer, a Cal Teach lecturer who also coordinates summer research opportunities. “We want to draw more computer science students who may find a career in teaching rewarding for them personally.”

For Jessica, the BERET program was an opportunity to explore the kind of research she might encounter later, in graduate school. It would also help her as a student teacher and in her post-graduation work as a math teacher with Teach for America in Miami.

Together, Jessica and Avi examined how the multi-armed bandit problem—the focus of Professor Karp’s research—could be applied to computerized adaptive testing. As part of the project, Jessica developed an algorithm to determine the fewest number of questions needed to assess a test taker’s performance level. Avi and Jessica also created a three-stage curriculum to meet the computer science education needs of socially and economically disadvantaged students in grades 7 through 10.

This fall, they taught this curriculum to the 22 students in Avi’s elective computer science class at Madison Park Academy. Only two had any prior exposure to programming, but they would all build an interactive greeting card and then program simple actions in a “100 clicks” computer game before taking on more complex coding for a tic-tac-toe game.

“By the end, students would not only understand the basics of computer programming, but also how to create a more challenging program and be able to build basic computer games or interact with websites,” Avi says.

Participation in the summer program, made possible by an Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME) fellowship, allowed Avi to dive deeper into both research and computer science. Though he teaches a computer science elective, Avi’s primary subject is math, and he came to K–12 teaching via Math for America and a University of Washington undergraduate education that spanned business, math, anthropology, and international studies. He’d taken information systems courses and taught himself to code.

“The fellowship was another step in my understanding of programming, computer science, and their application to education,” Avi says. “It was an opportunity to connect my students to the most important tool they’ll need when they leave secondary school and work with technology.”

Though their summer project has ended, Avi and Jessica continue to work together. She completed a project-based learning field placement with Avi this fall and is now in his classroom every day as a student teacher. Jessica says of their collaborations, “We not only enjoyed working together this summer, but also pushed each other with the research. We came to the task with very different sets of knowledge and were able to rely on each other’s strengths. We work well together because we both enjoy mathematics and learning.”

Like Jennifer, Jessica and Avi are eager to see more schools and K–12 teachers embrace computer science education. Jessica describes herself as passionate about sharing her love of computer science with girls and women, and Avi encourages other teachers to seek out professional conferences and online resources that can help them increase student interest and preparation in computer science.

“Within the area of computer science, we’re at a crossroads in education and starting to understand that it isn’t just an extra but important to how people solve problems,” Avi says. “The next generation of teachers has to be ready, willing, and able to make an impact using technology. We have to evolve to prepare students for the future.”

To Avi and Jennifer, that calls for teachers to increase their own engagement with computer science. Jennifer says, “I think confidence is one of the biggest issues we see. Teachers need to learn that they can use technology even if they don’t have a technical background. Having teachers model how to use technology and be comfortable and unafraid to make mistakes encourages students to try it.”

As a teacher, Avi is seeing the payoffs of computer science education firsthand. The students who completed the curriculum he and Jessica presented in the fall have continued to explore computer science, working with additional programming languages and creating computer games.

“This is a nice validation of the work we did this summer. They have the basic skills and are now trying something new,” Avi says. “We also use computers in my classes every day—not always for programming, but always for problem solving. You can’t expect anyone to fall in love with programming if they only get to see it once. Engagement in computer science is the same as it is in other subjects. You start off with the wow factor and relevancy. Why is this cool? Why will it work? You open students’ eyes to the possibilities. With computer science, it may be even easier because the products of computer science are so accessible to us today.”