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Teach the Teachers, and Contribute to Humanity

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Mark Guzdial suggests computer science education needs to be aimed at adults before teaching it to children; Lawrence M. Fisher finds the volunteer spirit behind ACM Special Interest Groups.
  1. Mark Guzdial: If You Want to Teach Kids CS, First Teach the Adults
  3. Lawrence M. Fisher Contributing to Humanity
  4. Authors
July 14, 2014

Recently, ACM past president Vint Cerf testified to the U.S. Senate on research needs, and he addressed the need for more CS education:

As a recent president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Google staff, I have been a strong proponent of the proposition that computer science should be a required part of the K–12 curriculum. Every student should have some exposure to the concept of programming, not only because it promotes logical thinking but also because it is important for everyone to understand and appreciate the potential weaknesses in all software-controlled systems. Computer science should be treated on a par with biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, not simply as an elective that bears no STEM credit.
        —Vint Cerf, testimony to U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, July 17, 2014

How do we achieve the goal Vint identifies, to require CS in primary and secondary school curricula in the U.S.?

We can agree we need schools and teachers to achieve this goal. MOOCs have not yet shown success with early subjects, and completion rates for MOOCs are lowest for students with little prior background. We really do not know how to use online learning to successfully engage the majority of secondary school students in CS education, let alone the greater challenges of reaching all students in high school and in primary school.

The challenges of getting more schools and more CS teachers are highlighted in a recent working paper by the Exploring CS (ECS) group at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), The Revolving Door: CS for All and the Challenge of Teacher Retention (

This means that fully 45 of the 81 teachers who have participated in the ECS program have experienced a teaching "disruption" which has ended their participation in the ECS teacher community for a year or longer.

What is worse is that losing a teacher often means losing the whole school—no replacement CS teacher can be found quickly enough to avoid losing a year or more. What is the problem? Why are so few teachers being retained as high school CS teachers in Los Angeles? Simply requiring or mandating CS in schools does not solve this problem of getting enough teachers.

To be clear, it is not a problem of more professional development. We have far more capacity for CS teacher professional development ( than we have teachers interested in learning CS. We have to make teaching CS a valued and inviting career.

The ECS working paper cites Linda Darling-Hammond, who explains the real challenge of having enough teachers is getting support for those teachers:

"The main problem is an exodus of new teachers from the profession, with more than 30% leaving within five years, and higher rates of turnover in lower-income schools. An additional problem is the flight of teachers from less-affluent schools to more-affluent schools. This is strongly tied to working conditions—including administrative support and strong colleagues as well as tangible teaching conditions and salaries. Research also finds that teachers leave the profession much faster if they have less preparation before they enter and less mentoring support when they arrive."

In Lijun Ni’s research on CS teacher identity (, we heard similar stories from math teachers who did not want to teach computer science—it was the lack of community and support:

"I’m a better math teacher, just because I’ve had so much support. Whenever I have problems, I can talk with the people that I work with, most of who[m] have taught for many years in math. …Every day, I’m eating lunch with math teachers. With computer science, I’ve got nobody to talk to."

If we want to teach kids CS, we first have to teach adults CS. We need more teachers who know computer science. We need more administrators and principals who value CS and build support for it within their schools, including mentoring support for new teachers. Yes, we also need legislators to define education policy to value CS so teaching a science class does not take priority over teaching a CS class.

I propose a specific, concrete step to improve CS education and bring us closer to Vint Cerf’s goal: Require computer science as part of the general education requirements for all undergraduate majors in all universities and colleges. Undergraduate students would take courses in social sciences, humanities, science, mathematics, and computer science. If computer science is so important that all school children need it, then it is obviously even more important for all students who are choosing career paths that require higher education. Implementing this requirement is far easier than implementing a requirement in K–12, since most colleges and universities already have a CS department with teachers who know how to teach CS.

The positive impact of this step is that it makes long-term change. All new teachers will already have had a course in computer science, making professional development in how to teach computer science much easier. Administrators, principals, and parents with undergraduate degrees will have had a CS course that helps them understand the value and importance of computer science for children.

The ECS working paper ends with an important admonition. The desire to improve computing education in schools is going to lead to short-term quick fixes. An example quick fix is asking IT professionals to teach CS classes so that something gets offered in schools. That kind of quick fix does not do anything to grow support for teaching CS in schools so teachers are recruited, mentored, supported, and retained. That kind of quick fix does not lead to change in how we teach CS, so we broaden participation in computing and grow a more diverse CS workforce.

We need to plan for teaching computer science for the long term. Think in terms of decades ( We have to create a system for growing CS in schools. To do that, we need to grow teachers and schools, which means we first need to think about teaching the adults about CS.

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I agree adults should be taught for them to value and pass CS to the next generation.
        —E. A. Ichu

As a 1989 college CS graduate I can attest to its value, though how I arrived at becoming interested in CS was not through a mandatory requirement from the small-town public school I attended. My interest began more as a curiosity of computers and how they worked. The truth is I spent many hours playing games on my Commodore 64, which led to eventually writing very simple programs for the C64. What I found as a curiosity, most kids today take for granted. If parents, teachers, and schools want to promote CS, they should recognize there are numerous channels in which kids can be invited to explore what CS is about. Introductory CS classes should focus on fun and multiple disciplines of CS as a way for the student to explore and develop their own curiosity.
        —Paul Parker

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Lawrence M. Fisher Contributing to Humanity
August 11, 2014

This is my first time attending SIGGRAPH, and only the first day of the conference, and I am already struck by the spirit of teamwork, volunteerism, and contributing to humanity underlying much that I have seen.

That spirit is as pervasive as the youngsters bedecked in brightly colored shirts patrolling the halls, ballrooms, and meeting rooms of the Vancouver Convention Centre, who have donated their time to provide information and directions to those of us new to the venue. It was notable in each of this year’s recipients of ACM SIGGRAPH Awards, but none more than Scott Lang, an educator now at the Bergen County Academies, whose association with SIGGRAPH began as a volunteer many years ago. It was blatantly obvious in the keynote remarks of Elliot Kotek, co-founder of Not Impossible Labs, a firm whose founding tenet was "Technology for the Sake of Humanity," and which brings together "people with technical savvy" in multiple disciplines to develop open source assistive technologies to help people who are paralyzed to communicate, those missing limbs to walk and feed themselves, the silent to speak.

Conference chair Dave Shreiner observed that the themes exemplified by the Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques include how technology can be used to enhance people’s lives; compassion, in using technology to help make people’s lives better, and "bridging a collection of communities" across computer and other scientific disciplines to cross-pollinate or innovate useful technologies.

ACM SIGGRAPH president Jeff Jortner discussed the value of volunteering in an organization like SIGGRAPH, including the opportunity to network with mentors and peers, develop leadership skills, interact with a wide range of disciplines, make friends from all over the world, and contribute to the larger community.

Quite an unexpected perspective, for a group best known for its development of complex computer graphics and special effects for blockbuster motion pictures.

ACM president Alex Wolf noted SIGGRAPH is just one of ACM’s 36 Special Interest Groups. ACM, he said, is actively "building and nurturing communities of excellence in computing." That seems an apt description for SIGGRAPH.

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