To graduate from the Advanced Math and Science Academy, a charter school for grades 6–12 in Marlborough, MA, every high-school student must take at least three years of computer science. However, the public school's inclusion of computer science alongside math, English, and other core subjects is a remarkable exception in the U.S., where only one in five states counts computer science classes toward any kind of graduation requirement. In fact, even as most occupations are increasingly dependent on computing, the number of computer science courses in the U.S. has decreased in the past five years, according to Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K–12 Computer Science in the Digital Age, a new report from ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association. The report (http://www.acm.org/runningonempty/) also notes that when schools offer a computer science course, it is usually an elective; moreover, much of what passes for high-school computer science instruction is actually about information technology (IT) literacy rather than algorithm design, programming, or computational thinking.
"Computing underpins everything, yet two-thirds of states have few learning standards in the fundamentals of computer science," says ACM CEO John White. In addition to its efforts at state and federal levels, ACM is leading the second Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), which is aimed directly at students, teachers, parents, and counselors this year. Held Dec. 5–11 and officially recognized by a Congressional resolution, CSEdWeek is spreading the message that computer science is a crucial part of a 21st century education—regardless of your future career.
"There is a growing misconception that if you can send an email or find something on the Web that you somehow know a lot about computing," says White. "No, you're increasingly IT literate, but you know nothing about the fundamentals of how this stuff works."
Bolstering the teaching of mathematics is not enough, says White, explaining that computer science is its own discipline, distinct from every dimension of math taught in high school. "CS has a lot of math in it, but it's a lot more than mathematics," he says. "It's one thing to develop a static mathematical solution, but it's another to build a dynamic computation to achieve whatever your goal is."
Supported by a group of corporate and nonprofit partners, this year's CSEdWeek budget is twice that of last year, White says, and some of it has been spent on a richer Web site, http://www.csedweek.org, which conveys the importance of computer science, offers curriculum materials, and suggests ways to participate. Local events throughout the U.S., Canada, and other countries range from CS Unplugged activities and computing diaries to field trips and school visits from ACM chapters.
CSEdWeek's organizers' long-term goal is to make the event as prominent and influential as its older cousin, Engineers Week. "Engineering, like computing, is a discipline that's not part of the core in K–12 education," says Debra Richardson, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine and chair of this year's CSEdWeek. "But nobody thinks there are no jobs in engineering, whereas there's still this sense on the part of parents and guidance counselors that there are no jobs in computing."
Although it's true that many computing-related jobs have gone overseas, Richardson says these are mainly jobs in customer service and quality assurance. "Computer science trains you for developing the next intellectual property for a company, and they're not offshoring that," says Richardson, citing the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projection of 800,000 to 1.5 million U.S. computing jobs between now and 2018.
Moreover, Richardson and White stress that computer science is invaluable for innovation in fields as disparate as biology, engineering, and health care. "Studying computer science means you'll be able to use computation in solving problems," says White, "and that's a huge amplifier in our ability to advance almost any aspect of society."
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