Thursday, August 13, 2009

Teach Me Computer Science Earlier

Today I (hopefully) inspired the next generation of computer scientists. ;)

Carleton University hosts Virtual Ventures summer camps each year, and within these camps, there are a couple of special opportunities for girls to participate in Girls@VV. Because one of the instructors is from CU-WISE, she asked if any of us would be interested in mentoring or even doing some fun activities with the girls

Well, how could I pass up?

I borrowed some material from my games mini-course for girls and put together a few slides about what computer science is and how women fit in. We had a discussion on why girls don't get into it, why that's a bad thing, and what would help. Then we did the finite state machine activity from CS Unplugged. Terri from CU-WISE also came out to help. What a blast we had!

As was the case for my mini-course, these girls had amazing insight into the reasons girls aren't very interested. The title of this post represents a major theme: they want to learn about what computer science really is early on in their school lives!

Students who have access to computers at school, it seems, learn how to use them, but nothing beyond that. They don't learn how to make HTML pages or make games with Alice or Game Maker or anything deep at all. They just learn how to find info for and write up projects and that sort of thing.

Some of the girls said that the growing populations at their schools caused the computer labs to be taken over as regular classrooms. Then, the only computers left were for the teacher to use in the classrooms. So not everyone even gets a chance to use computers at school in their younger years.

Another common suggestion was to have after-school programs. They reasoned that you can do sports, which won't help most people in their future careers, but not computers or electronics. They said they would love a club like that, and think their friends would go, too. They want teachers who are more knowledgeable in the topic (rather than the unfortunate souls who get assigned to teach computers simply because there's nobody else), and role models to show girls that computer science can be fun, exciting, and cool. (For instance, they loved the videos I showed them from the Why Choose CSE collection over at the University of Washington.) Finally, they want to know more about how computer science can be connected to the things they already enjoy doing.

There are many camps and programs being run that are supposed to address exactly these ideas given to us today, and yet we still hear that the girls are left wanting. Are the programs not far enough reaching? Are the activities not engaging enough? (I can tell you our CS Unplugged activity sure was!) What's going on?


Unknown said...

One problem for getting students in general (not just girls) is that computer science is considered arcane and exotic. I was telling a fellow student about my summer research (he's a geo major) and the exact I used was "I analyzed programs for performance problems" which isn't quite true, but the least technical one liner I could come up with. His answer was "You lost me at 'program'". Stuff like geo, bio, even other sciences and engineering disciplines have an aura of normalcy about them that CS lacks.

Its not that understanding or creating programs is hard, but lots of people think it is. Also compared to the old days when your home computer probably came with a ROM chip with BASIC burned in and precious little else, learning programming was upfront, in-your-face. Its quite the opposite where you have to go and find a compiler/interpreter, download, install, learn to use etc. Unless if you're on a Linux box. But then if you're a young student on a Linux box you probably want to learn about CS anyways.

Gail Carmichael said...

I think that's exactly where activities like CS Unplugged can do wonders. These fun activities make CS seem normal, and even non-CS people can teach them! :)

Barbora Dej said...

At the IEEE's TISP (Teacher In-Service Program) workshop this year I spoke to a few high school teachers who are really enthusiastic about teaching computers. One of them used to work in industry. He said that their school "doesn't have the funds for computer courses". He said it's not an excuse, but that's what he is told. I'm not sure what to do about that one. But hopefully soon programs like TISP, CU-WISE and all the outreach programs out there start to take effect in pre-university curriculums.

Gail Carmichael said...

Barb, this is actually something that came up a lot during our discussion about CS Education at the Google Scholars' Retreat (see this blog post). The key was to integrate CS stuff into already existing curriculum. For example, teaching addition? Do an activity on binary counting (yes, you can do these activities at very young ages). Teaching science? Show how lots of data gets sorted with a sorting activity. The possibilities are there - someone just needs to show teachers what they can do and how to do it. CS connects to everything. Maybe this is where CU-WISE can help! ;)

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Mackenzie said...

You know how between 3rd grade (long division) and whenever it is they teach algebra, you learn basically nothing about math, just keep practicing the old stuff? At my school that would've meant learning nothing in 4th, 5th, or 6th grade, except in 6th grade I had a math teacher who decided he wasn't going to teach to the curriculum.

He taught us how to think about math theoretically. We learned ternary. And we were tested on ternary with a bonus question in binary. You could only get the binary question right if you really understood the theory behind changing bases.

And he taught us how math could actually be used (aside from calculating how much 15% off sales would save). He had us make scale drawings of our rooms, of furniture we'd like, figure out square footage of paint and carpet required, etc. and do our own interior design with a $2000 budget. That was a great teacher.

And I totally agree on having computer teachers who actually know how to use computers. Learning how to use Microsoft Word every year for 6 years isn't helping any. Especially when it's "how to make really horrendously ugly stuff with too many fonts that looks like it belongs on a c. 1997 website complete with <blink> tag"!

Gail Carmichael said...

Whoa - I definitely do not "know how between 3rd grade (long division) and whenever it is they teach algebra, you learn basically nothing about math, just keep practicing the old stuff?"

I didn't learn long division until grade five or six!!

Your math experience sounds great! I'm a little jealous ;) I wonder if many have the same experience...?

Chris Mills said...

This is a really interesting post. I posted something related today, and then got passed a link to your post.

My post - How do we educate the web standards kids?

Gail Carmichael said...

Thanks Chris! Always cool to see that many of us are thinking about it :)

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