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A Summit on Computing Education in South Carolina


Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

I'm one of the leaders of an NSF-funded alliance to Broaden Participation in Computing called Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP). The goal of our alliance is to be a service organization to states in the USA as they improve and expand access to computing education. Unlike other countries, the United States does not have a federal curriculum. Each state makes its own decisions about curriculum and graduation requirements for the primary and secondary school level. In many states, the decisions are pushed down even further. In Massachusetts and California, individual school districts can develop their own graduation requirements.

We just held a summit in South Carolina on Computing Education, sponsored by ECEP, IT-oLogy (a unique private sector organization focusing on advancing IT), and the University of South Carolina. Duncan Buell (USC) and Lonnie Emard (president of IT-oLogy) wrote an op-ed article in the Columbia SC paper, The State, about the summit and the goals for it. We had over 100 participants in the two day event, November 8-9, with representatives from the state government, Department of Education, school superintendents, business leaders, and teachers.

South Carolina could be a breakaway leader in computing education among the United States. Curriculum and graduation requirements in SC are defined at the state-level, making it possible to change things for the whole state at once. Computer science is already required for all students in SC. The requirement can currently be met with classes on using computer applications like Photoshop, but there is interest in CS statewide and there are teachers with some computing background. South Carolina has good participation on the Advanced Placement (AP) CS exam, with more minority participation than most states.

We focused the summit on what was going on in South Carolina and how it related to efforts in other states and at a national level. Marie desJardins came in from Maryland to talk about efforts there, and Avis Yates Rivers told us about NCWIT's efforts, especially the Sit with Me campaign. We shared ECEP stories from Georgia and Massachusetts. Cameron Wilson, COO of Code.org, was our keynote on Friday. Dale Reed from the University of Illinois-Chicago came to describe how Chicago adopted the Exploring CS (ECS) curriculum, and to lead us all in a professional development activity. South Carolina is developing a form of ECS, with a goal of teaching it in all their high schools. Tony Dillon from the state Department of Education and Michael Eason, a high school teacher developing curriculum and professional development, talked about the South Carolina CS courses.

I've been involved in discussions about computing education reform in several states now, and I'm always struck by how different the issues are in each state. Here were two issues that were new to me in South Carolina:

  • There is concern about tightening the definition of "computer science" so that application use doesn't count. Some education leaders in South Carolina don't want the CS requirement to be too difficult for students to pass who aren't aiming for post-secondary education. For those students, computing applications are practical and useful. These leaders would rather see computer science classes like the Advanced Placement CS class or ECS count towards college admissions, rather than high school graduation.
  • As in most states, computer science is part of career and technology (including business) classes in South Carolina. However, the AP CS class is owned by the mathematics division in the State Department of Education, and is unwilling to connect that class to the business CS classes in a "pathway." States that link courses in a "pathway" are eligible for special Federal funding to pay for computing equipment (among other things) for those classes, and many states try to create CS pathways to receive that funding. Most states use AP CS as the last class in the pathway. Without cooperation of the mathematics division, the career and technology division has to invent their own pathway.

The most interesting part of the summit for me was Saturday afternoon when we broke into smaller groups to ask, "What are the next steps in computing education for South Carolina?" Five groups were formed by group consensus around the five central challenges in South Carolina. Here is my summary of some of their recommendations (quotes are from their reports):

  • Public Policy: Make ECS a requirement for college admissions, and stop teaching keyboarding and computer applications in any high school.
  • Elementary/Middle School: Those keyboarding and application classes that are leaving high school need to move to elementary and middle school. "They need to know the hardware and critical thinking. We want age-appropriate activities in elementary school."
  • Teacher Professional Development: Significantly increase professional development, but more importantly, market CS to teachers and help them to see the value of learning to teach all the courses in a CS pathway. "Show them what all the courses in the pathway look like." A multi-year process has to be developed where teachers get professional development opportunities over multiple years, teach the classes, and get support from a community of practice. "Not all schools can jump into AP CS. We need to develop the teachers, infrastructure, and the schools.
  • Awareness: South Carolina needs a statewide organizer to work full-time at promoting computer science. The focus should be on getting teachers and guidance counselors to see the opportunities in computing, and to communicate that to their students. "The statewide coordinator should work with IT-oLogy to expand educator field studies (to let teachers and counselors see real-world IT industry), to re-tool career development guidance counselors on the expanded roles that IT plays and the many jobs that fall under computing definitions."
  • Industry and University Involvement: South Carolina places a priority preparing students to meet needs in industry. This group liked the ideas of educator field studies as summer-long internships (paid positions) so that teachers get to live in an IT industry and learn the range of aspects. Universities might help the teachers codify the experiences into curriculum. We need strategies for creating buy-in: parents, principals, administrators, business. South Carolina business already understands the value of improved IT education.

While the Summit was focused on South Carolina, the issues are similar in the other United States, and beyond, in other countries that are seeking to broaden access to computing education.

We're all trying to grapple with the same problems. South Carolina is an interesting instance of the struggles to provide computing education access to everyone. It's also an opportunity to address these issues in a way that might serve as a model for other states.


 

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