Monday, August 9, 2010

Integrating Computing into Secondary School Subject Matter

How are we going to entice students into the study of computing in our secondary schools? A hot topic, which I discussed in a previous post about the new CS  Principles initiative. That is an exciting approach off and running. What will happen though, when a school takes a different approach to infusing computing into the curriculum? What happens when computing is a consciously chosen tool to teach required subject matter (Language Arts, Physics etc) as opposed to being the core subject matter itself? Here in my back yard we will soon be able to watch this play out.

There is a new technology oriented public charter school opening this fall in San Diego called Coleman Tech. I read their web site in some detail, and noted that their Mission Statement prominently ends by saying they will teach in a "technology enhanced environment". This past Saturday, I attended one of their information sessions.

An enthusiastic presentation was given by several people on the leadership team, including Vice Principal Neil McCurdy. Neil is a computer scientist who earned his PhD here at UC-San Diego and is a veteran high school teacher. We first met a few years ago when he accepted my invitation on behalf of The ACM Education Council (info here and here) to provide his perspective on the state of high school computer science.

Saturday, after the Coleman Tech team's  power point presentation, Neil demonstrated examples of how computing can be integrated into Biology and Math classes. His approach was to provide pre-written Java code for the students to tweak and thus create ecological competition or a trigonometry dependent screen saver. Altering the code a little at a time (I initially wrote "bit by bit" but decided that was a poor unintended pun) students receive instantaneous, colorful graphic results while learning the subject matter content. Along the way they also learn some Java and computational thinking is gently acquired.

Further comparing the above (dare I say sneaky?) multi-class approach to teaching computational thinking with the CS Principles Project approach of creating a dedicated class, I did a bit of digging. Beyond reading all I could find on the most recent descriptions of the Principles project, I also read a post from last year by Jan Cuny of the NSF where she made the case for the Principles Project. She never uses the words interdisciplinary or integration. But she says "computing is a creative activity that draws upon a wide variety of fields" and that it has a "breadth of application". Hmmm. Sounds like something Coleman Tech would agree with. They don't use the words interdisciplinary or integration in their public documents either.

Each approach has its merits, which have been adequately described by those implementing them.

Each approach has its challenges when it comes to attracting students to a career in computing. The CS Principles documents (and most readers of this blog I suspect) are well aware of the systemic challenges faced by the stand alone course approach. Conversely, the Coleman Tech approach will expose a wide variety of students to computing because the courses are not elective. However, the challenges to this approach are equally demanding:

  • If a high school student is in her or his "Biology" class, and they use computing to do "cool things", will they be attracted to study Biology? Or Computing? 
  • As computing educators (university, college, high school) we have a vested interest in making sure some students at least, are made aware of the computing focus and want to pursue it further. I find it unlikely that this awareness will happen on its own very often. Even if I believed otherwise, experience says that a proactive approach to recruitment is the way to go.
  • How do we address the challenge of proactive recruitment into computing from [other topics] classes? 
Coleman Tech Charter School opens in less than a month. It is going to be exciting to see what effect their "technology enhanced" approach has on student interest in further computing study. I won't be the only one watching, but I'll definitely be blogging about it.

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