Thursday, October 3, 2013

CS Principles and the CS 10k Initiative / GHC13

As the opening keynote here at GHC reminded us, computer science has a supply problem.  The number of people we need to create technology is increasing at a much faster rate than students taking computer science in schools.  The Exploring Computer Science and Computer Science Principles projects are aiming to help fix that.

At a panel discussing the two projects, we learned why they matter and how they work.  CS Principles is an advanced placement (AP) course for high schools that is currently in pilot mode.  (AP classes, for the non-Americans like myself, are like college level classes taught to high school students in exchange for college credit later on.)  On the other hand, Exploring CS is intended as a high school level class taught to high school students.

Both take an approach to teaching computer science that is dear to my heart.  They want to show why computer science is interesting and relevant; students should "learn how computer science is used as a lever to move the world."  They do it not through typical lecture-based styles of teaching, but through inquiry, offering interesting problems that engage students.  Exploring Computer Science is described as student centred, collaborative, and inquiry based — a very powerful combination!

The goal is not to teach coding, but computational thinking.  For example, CS Principles centres around several big ideas including creativity, global impact, abstraction, the Internet, and more.  It does make use of fixed-response questions as assessment, but it also has performance tasks that give much more flexibility to students. This really gives some insight into the kind of "content" delivered.

It's this kind of philosophy that I was inspired by when creating my version of our "Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Students" course.  Of course, with 440 students in a huge lecture hall, the kinds of in-class activities and assessments is somewhat limited.  Even still, I could take this course's design so much further than I have so far, and hope I get the chance to in the future.

I'd also like to push my outreach teaching and curriculum to the next level.  As I do, I should take heed of the advice given by the panel in response to an audience question: If you are a non-profit (like Girls Who Code, for example), and you are considering using these curricula, start by talking with teachers.  They know how to engage a group of high school students and teach them effectively.


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