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Reaching Future Computer Scientists

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The decline in undergraduate enrollment at the university level is well documented and it begins in high school. Today's high school students are exposed to traditional math and science curriculumsthink biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciencesbut exposure to computer science and associated computational thinking is frequently absent from the high school experience in the U.S.4,6

One theory is that today's classroom teachers are not aware of the materials available to them for use with students and not aware of the professional opportunities available to their students upon graduation. While using computers may or may not be part of the high school experience, problem solving and an understanding of what computer scientists, computational scientists, and information technologists do after college is not clearly held among the teaching population in high schools.

The importance of computer science to the national curriculum has been addressed by some states with teacher certification programs.3 New Jersey's Core Curriculum Standards, for example, include modeling and simulation as a standard under science practice. While this is significant, computer science can't wait another generation or two of students for legislated standards to be implemented. Instead, we advocate university faculty reaching out to high school faculty. We have, and so should others.

By holding teacher workshops, we've been able to update and enhance many of the ideas current high school faculty have regarding applications of computers in the sciences and the utility of computational thinking in high school. Surveys of the classroom teachers who have attended our workshops indicate attendees have changed examples or projects as a result of their workshop experience. Additionally, by including future teachers, university students in their final year of study to become teachers, a new generation of teachers is provided with demonstrations, lessons, and applications of technology which can be used in the classroom to engage students in computational thinking and excite our next generations of computer scientists and information technologists. By working with both current classroom teachers, and future teachers, we feel our workshops are unique. Other professional development workshops such as CS4HS, first held at Carnegie Mellon, include only current classroom teachers. Our postworkshop follow-up surveys show workshop effectiveness as being high. Half our established classroom teachers respondents surveyed indicated they had updated or changed their classroom practices after attending the workshop, and added or increased the amount of computational thinking they included in the curriculum.

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When Did You Get Excited About Computing?

Think back to when you first got excited about computing. Today's mid-life computing professionals (think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs if you need general examples1955 was a very good year for germinating computational entrepreneurs) both got their first experiences in high school. Prior generations were exposed to computing starting in college due to the prohibitive cost of computing and relative scarcity of knowledge, but by the early 1970s, access to parts and motivation was enough to get high school students going, further fueled by the first home PCs. Generations of students got their start by soldering parts in their garage or copying code out of hobbyist magazines. This spirit of computational curiosity is growing dormant in modern students. Currently, there remain high school hackers, working on iPhone hacks or apps (hardware vs. software remains eternal), but there are fewer, in part as the youth of today are already highly scheduled with other activities, and costs associated with iPhones and other devices may be prohibitive to many teenagers.

By working with both current classroom teachers, and future teachers, we feel our workshops are unique.

Computational thinking is a required skillwe have an obligation to instruct and share it with our youth, as illustrated by the New Jersey core standards and national technology standards. Many of us remember unstructured time in adolescence, a teacher or teachers in high school that provided access, and peers that provided motivation.

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How to Recapture This?

Over the years, a number of university outreach efforts have been tried to attract students to the major. Faculty visits to high school classrooms, high school student visits to university campuses, and interaction with faculty, are often thought to be the ideal recruiting vehicle. In reality, for all but the most selective institutions, getting students excited about computing may encourage them to major in computer science or information technologybut not necessarily in the visiting faculty member's department. The high school students may (probably) go elsewhere. Therefore, a correspondence between university and college faculty visits to high school classrooms and increasing enrollment in the major at the home institution is nonexistent. Furthermore, students move on and university faculty visits to the high school must be annual or bi-annual at the least to keep student awareness high.

An alternative paradigm was considered: what if the emphasis of university and college faculty moved from engaging high school students to engaging their teachers? High school teachers have the potential for tremendous impact on their students, and do not leave a high school with the four-year predictability that students do. This is what worked to inspire prior generationswhat if we went back to the future? If we could engage today's high school teachers, and include university students studying to be math, science, and computer science teachers, we might be able to influence countless future generations of high school students. The impact of working with high school teachers and education majors has the potential to be far greater than working with high school students directly.

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High School Teacher Workshops

As a result of this thinking, a one-day workshop for high school math and science teachers and teacher candidates was developed.5 By holding the workshop on the university campus, university students and facilities were at the ready for demonstration and discussion. This offered the greatest opportunity for high school teachers to ask questions and exchange ideas in a manner that might not be possible in their home school and district. With the support of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a workshop proposal was developed and vetted by local high school faculty and CSTA chapter members. Additionally, content was focused not only on high school computer science professionals, but also on math and science teachers as well, with match and science content showing how computational tools and computational thinking can support the teaching of STEM concepts. Once consensus was reached the event was promoted through email to local CSTA chapters and AP Computer Science list servers and registration, via a Web site, was conducted.

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Broadening Participation

Nationally, discussion regarding CS preparation at the high school level usually considers AP Computer Science test preparation and results as the strongest indicator of student success at the college level in computer science. While this remains true, there are many students who are not exposed to computing or computational thinking in high school despite personal interest and aptitude, and may not be able to master the skills needed in the time provided for university success in computer science. By the time students get to post-secondary education, it may be too late for future success in computing.

Therefore, the goal of our workshop was to address the educational ramp from high school to universitythe ramp that provides the approach for students considering computer science or any discipline involving computational thinking. Particularly in light of the NSF-initiated CS10K project"2 that seeks to develop a new secondary school computer science curriculum in fundamental concepts of computing and computational thinking, with the goal of having this new curriculum taught by 10,000 teachers in 10,000 schools by 2015, a professional development pipeline to current and new, emerging math, science, and computer science teachers is vital.

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Teacher Feedback

The teachers attending the workshop had on average between five and nine years of teaching experience. The majority was from public, suburban districts; however several attendees were from private schools affiliated with religious organizations. In addition to teaching Microsoft Office to their students, the teachers indicated that C++ and Java were taught in the high schools, with Java taught in greater numbers. Most had never attended a computer science or computational thinking workshop before and could not recall one being offered in their area. The high school teachers considered themselves good at programming, and spreadsheets, with lesser skill reported in database management and computer-based modeling. Almost all regarded themselves as having just basic to moderate expertise in calculus, differential equations, and linear or matrix algebra. The expectations for the workshop included networking opportunities, learning about computational thinking, and understanding more about professional opportunities in computer science for their students. While all agreed that computational thinking was important for their students, they were just as consistently unsatisfied with their student's current knowledge of computational thinking.

We strongly advocate universities and colleges hosting one-day high school teacher workshops.

After attending the workshop, all the teachers indicated they felt much more comfortable advancing the use of computing and computational thinking in their classeswhich ranged from computer science, to high school mathematics and science topics. The potential for infusion of computational science throughout their curriculum was the real success story from the day. Problem-solving techniques using computational tools, take-back curriculum materials, career opportunities for students, and finally, preparing their students for success in computing at the university level were all additional positive outcomes from the workshop.

Overall, the workshop was an astounding success, with attendees asking when the next workshop would be held and suggesting topics that might be added in the future. The importance of computational thinking and computer science to their student's future was very clear to the attendees, as well as the resources that were available to them in the form of local university faculty.

A follow-up survey conducted four to six months after the teachers had attended a workshop found that half the teachers responding indicated they had either changed their examples, class projects, or both as a result of having attended the one-day professional development workshop. Fifty percent of the respondents also indicated that they had either added or increased the computation thinking in their curriculum. The most widely adopted materials from the workshops were the lessons that included the use of Google Maps, as well as portions of the CS Unplugged materials1 that were demonstrated, particularly the lessons on binary number representations. Video game programming examples were also popular, and have been used in subsequent high school and middle school classrooms as demos and to attract student interest. As a result, one school approved a new video-game programming course for students in the next school year.

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The workshop has become a regular campus event, with both high school teachers and university faculty looking forward to it and thinking about what should be included in the workshop agenda. The future teachers enjoy attending the workshop, and feel the chance to meet working teachers is an added benefit, as ideas about curriculum design, classroom projects, and the use of Web sites in lessons can be discussed and valuable feedback received.

Current computer science and information technology majors enjoy volunteering at the event and answering questions about their own preparation prior to university and their experience once on campus. This has served to personalize the 'computer science student' to the high school teachers in such a way that they can share with their students, when they return to their high school, what a computer science major really works on and how he or she got to that point.

We strongly advocate universities and colleges hosting one-day high school teacher workshops. By doing so, we've been able to update and enhance many of the ideas current high school faculty have regarding applications of computers in the sciences and the utility of computational thinking in high school. Additionally, by including future teachers currently obtaining their certification, a new generation of teachers is provided with demonstrations, lessons, and applications of technology that can be used in the classroom to engage students in computational thinking and excite a new generation of computer scientists. While the multi-day workshop model is outstanding, many teachers cannot spare the time to attend, or are geographically remote from such offerings. The one-day model, offered annually or bi-annually with a rotating curriculum, offers professional development and community building to regional high-school math, science, and computer science teachers which is vital to the encouragement of future generations of students.

The effectiveness of the workshop in the high school community is rated highly as increasing awareness of opportunities in computing and information technology at the local university. Teachers are now suggesting to their students that they consider majoring in computer science or information technology and consider the local university. With firsthand knowledge of the faculty, resources, and facilities, this recommendation is of the highest order. A tracking project to identify students recruited to the major through their teacher's workshop experience is under way.

Future plans include continuing with the teacher workshops, and hosting students nominated by teachers who attend the workshops during a summer academy for computational thinking and computer science. Teachers from the workshops held during the academic year will apply to be teaching fellows at the summer academy, during which time they will gain experience in using the demonstrations and modeling tools discussed and illustrated at the workshop with the students attending the summer academy, providing further expertise for the teachers before they return to their own high school classrooms to put into practice what they have seen.

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1. Bell, T. Computer Science Unplugged;

2. Cuny, J. National Science Foundation Survey on Intro CS, email survey distributed to all CSTA members (Apr. 15, 2009); CS10K portal:

3. Ericson, B. et al. Ensuring exemplary teaching in an essential discipline: Addressing the crisis in computer science teacher certification. Computer Science Teachers Association (Sept. 2008).

4. Margolis, J. et al. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

5. Morreale, P. et. al. Connecting undergraduate programs to high school students: Teacher workshops on computational thinking and computer science, Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges 25, 6 (June 2010), 191197.

6. Wing, J. Educating future generations in computing. Computing Research News, (Mar. 2003), 3.

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Patricia Morreale ( is a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at Kean University in Union, NJ.

David Joiner ( is an assistant professor of Computational Mathematics and Physics in the New Jersey Center for Science and Technology Education at Kean University in Union, NJ.

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Kean University, Union, N.J., is located outside of New York City and is the largest provider of teachers in New Jersey.


Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2011 ACM, Inc.


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Article Contents:
  • Introduction
  • When Did You Get Excited About Computing?
  • How to Recapture This?
  • High School Teacher Workshops
  • Broadening Participation
  • Teacher Feedback
  • Summary
  • References
  • Authors
  • Footnotes