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For years following the dot-com bust, computer science enrollment plunged steadily, prompting hand wringing over America’s competitiveness in technology and innovation. But a nationwide push to bring coding to classrooms, plus rapid innovation in apps and communications, has prompted a 13.4 percent jump in computer science majors in the 2012-13 academic year alone. But retaining those budding programmers — especially females and minorities — remains a significant challenge. Kojo explores local and national efforts to boost computer science competency, and learns how educators are revamping computational learning to give it relevance far beyond the classroom.
- Marie desJardins Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- Pat Yongpradit Director of Education, Code.org
- Janice Cuny Program Director of Computing Education, National Science Foundation
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. If ever there were a buzz-word, right now, in computer science, it would be this, code. From Code.org and Code For America to Code Academy and even Black Girls Code. Organizations with support from Silicon Valley stalwarts, are pushing to revive computer programming in classrooms across the nation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut why the push now, when Silicon Valley is thriving and universities, nationwide, are reporting a jump in computer science majors? Turns out that the skills you learn from coding are a lot more dynamic then just entering long lines of java script. And to keep up with innovation, as well as the booming job market for a computer scientist, educators say coding in America's classrooms needs a badly needed overhaul that arms future computer scientists with technical, analytical and even social skills.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut how do you convince kids, educators and parents that coding is as fundamental as math and science? Joining us, in studio, to help us do this is Pat Yongpradit, director of education at Code.org. Pat, thank you for joining us.
MR. PAT YONGPRADITThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso, in studio, with us is Marie desJardins, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Marie, thank you for joining us.
DR. MARIE DESJARDINSGood morning.
NNAMDIAnd Jan Cuny is director of the broadening participation in computer program at The National Science Foundation. Jan, thanks for joining us, again.
MS. JANICE CUNYWell, thank you.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think coding should be a core part of our school curriculum like math and science, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Pat, your organization, Code.org and others like it around the country, are getting lots of press for your push to get coding into classrooms, as early as possible. But why now? Why do kids, who already know how to navigate tablets, apps, iPhone's and PC's, need to know the skill?
YONGPRADITYeah, I think it's a -- you just called out a misconception right there that I'd like to clear up, right from the beginning for all the, all the people listening, that a kid using a technology like an iPad or playing video games on a tablet or using an app is very different from a kid really understanding, not just how that app or how that game works, but really how just technology works in general and how they, in this modern age, can participate in the creation of these types of technologies.
YONGPRADITA lot of kids just don't realize what the, the user interfaces these days, that you know, there is something underneath what they're using. And that they, even at a young age, can create these types of things.
NNAMDIJan, I think, most of assume that enthusiasm for computer science was on fire, given all the cool technology that we're seeing out there. And the number of students taking stem courses has increased over the last two decades. So how did we find ourselves in a situation where computer science instruction is flagging in U.S. schools? What's behind this problem?
CUNYWell, I think, it goes back to, to the place that computer science has had in stem, historically it hasn't really been included at all. The number of -- a percentage of kids who take computer science has dropped from 25 percent to 19 percent, now, over the last 20 years, which is pretty ridiculous. Computer science doesn't fit into our categories very well. It's not a math or a science, in many states. And until that changes, it's not a graduation requirement, for kids. So in most of our high schools, it's treated, it's treated like, you know, an elective, like choir or shop or home-ec. And we have to change that, it has to be considered in academic course.
CUNYRight now, you are , somewhere between five or eight-times more likely to go to a high school that has a football team, then you are to go to a high school that has a computer science course.
NNAMDIThis, despite the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, by 2020, 4.6 million, out of 9.2 million stem jobs will be in computer science. Your title at The National Science Foundation, involves broadening participation in computing, which makes me think that another challenge is still facing computer science and the stereotype of the white or Asian male, dominating the field. Where are we in getting more women and minorities interested and into the field.
CUNYWe've done very poorly in that. Even over -- with this big increase in students, right now, we've had very, very low numbers of women and minorities for women, the number has actually gone down from around 40 percent in the '80s to now it's around 20 percent of the number of students who are getting graduate -- undergraduate degrees in computer science are women. That's extremely low. If you look at the advance placement tests in high school, we have the worst gender balance of any subject at all.
CUNYAnd we don't do much better for minorities. If you look at the high end of education, at PhD's, 70 -- 17 percent of the PhD's go to women, only three percent go to minorities and to a minority woman, only .5 percent. So that's about 70 percent of our population that's being left out of this entirely.
NNAMDIMarie desJardins, how do you see or how are you seeing these issues in early computer science education shaking out at the university level? Let's start with how enrollment in computer science has changed over the past few years.
DESJARDINSRight. This is really interesting because when I came to UMBC in 2001, we were near a peak for computer science enrollment and it started dropping after that point, as a result of the dot-com bust, which gave people the false impression that there weren't very many jobs out there. And so we really were under-enrolled for many, many years. A lot of jobs that couldn't be filled and, and really, I think, an under-demand. In the last six years though, at UMBC, we've had a 55 percent increase in the number of computer science majors.
DESJARDINSSo it's just phenomenally fast growth. So fast that we're not able to keep up with it. And most universities are in, really, difficult situations in trying to cover the number of students.
NNAMDIWhat do you think accounts for that growth?
DESJARDINSI think it's the bad economy and students and parents finally understanding where the jobs are. And I think it's, a lot of very, very hard work on the part of the Computing Research Association, NSF, the Association For Computing Machinery, Code.org and other organizations that have really pushed this issue at a national level. So that's great. Our challenge, right now, is increasing the percentage of women and minorities, which is still a problem and preparing students to succeed in these majors.
NNAMDII was about to say, because enthusiasm is one thing, competence is another. How well...
NNAMDI...prepared are kids coming into your courses at UMBC? Are you seeing gaps in their readiness to take on college level computing?
DESJARDINSDefinitely. This is a big problem. So our retention statistics are not great. Fewer than half of students that come in planning to major in computer science, actually, carry through to the end. A lot fewer than half. And it varies from one university to another. And of course, it depends on the, the context of the overall statistics for that university. One of our big issues is, students come in not understanding what the nature of a computing major is.
DESJARDINSThey, they like to play video games, so they think they should be a computer science major. Or their parents have told them, computer science is a good field to make a lot of money in. But you really need abstract thinking skills, you need critical thinking skills, you need logic, you need discipline, you need persistence and hard work. And all of these things are challenges. And so, one of the things, I think, we really need to focus on is getting a better curriculum for the K12 system, so that students learn what computer science is all about, they're exposed to it early.
DESJARDINSIf all students took computer science courses, we would have more women in computer science because part of the issue is just exposure and not knowing what it is. And when you get to college and you've never taken computer science, it's a little intimidating to start at that point.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation on coding and the push for computer science competency with Marie desJardins. She's a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Jan Cuny is director of the broadening participation and computing program at The National Science Foundation. And Pat Yongpradit is director of education at Code.org. 800-433-8850 is our number.
NNAMDIPat, before I go to the phones, we were just mention, talking with Marie, about what's going on in high schools. Before you were at Code.org, you spent more than a decade in Montgomery County schools, teaching computer science. What kind of need did you see there, and in our region generally, for a more well rounded computer science curriculum?
YONGPRADITI'll get to curriculum in a second, actually Code.org is doing a whole lot of work around curriculum creation and, and software environment creation, coding environment creation. But I think the, the first thing I'd like to call out about how to improve computer science in our area is just teachers, getting more teachers trained and understanding what computer science is. But not just even conceptually what computer science is and, and how to code necessarily, which is just a small subject within the larger context of computer science.
YONGPRADITBut also understanding, you know, just who should come into computer science. So calling out what Jan was talking about in terms of recruitment of women and minorities, so -- and then also, lastly, just pedagogically how to teach computer science. It's not just about sitting a kid in front of a computer and taking some course that thousands of other kids are taking, it really involves a skillful teacher to teach computer science.
NNAMDIGive us some insight there because you're now developing courses for Montgomery County and Charles County. Can you tell us what you're advocating and what may be going on in classrooms there?
YONGPRADITYeah, so we're creating courses at Code.org that span kindergarten to 12 grade. And that's, that's very new for computer science because often times most of the computer science experience is concentrated on high school students. And so we're going all the way down into elementary school. So imagine, those of you guys who are parents who are listening, imagine your five-year-old child learning computer science concepts. They really can in this day and age.
YONGPRADITAnd so we're -- we're demystifying computer science. We're making it easy, approachable and fun and engaging. And it's starting with kindergarten kids. We're creating three levels of computer science at the K5, in the K5 grade range. And then we're integrating computer science into preexisting science and math classes in the middle school levels, grade six through eight.
YONGPRADITAnd then we are promoting, actually the two courses that are the pillar of the broadening participation and computer science movement, that Jan was talking about, we're promoting these two courses, exploring computer science and computer science principals which are actually national courses, they're national movements.
NNAMDIGetting back to the challenge of finding teachers. How do you educate the educators? How is Code.org educating them in a subject, that I guess, might sound intimidating to some teachers with little computer science backgrounds?
YONGPRADITYeah. So we're, we are, in our first year, we're working with about 750 teachers, nationwide, in about 34 school districts, in nine different regional areas. And so this is a great undertaking. And the majority of these teachers really don't have much of a computer science background, especially the, the teachers in the lower grades. And so we're, we're -- first off, it's a, it's a long professional development experience.
YONGPRADITSo this is not a one and done experience. It's not one week and then, you know, you're off on your own. We're with them before the summer workshop, before the traditional summer workshop, we're with them during the summer workshop. We're with them during the academic year and then even after that, we're with them, really developing these teachers to help them feel confident and knowledgeable about the subject that they want to, to expose their students to.
NNAMDIA lot of people like to join the conversation. Our phone lines are already filled. If you'd like to join it, yourself, give us a -- send us an email to email@example.com or shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. You can use the hashtag #techtuesday. Here is Van in Lynchburg, Va. Van, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VANHi, thank you for taking my call. This subject matter is really exciting me. And I love hearing what your guests are saying about it. I am a public school teacher in the elementary school. And one of the things I can tell you is that students, whether they're second language learners, girls, boys, when you expose them to the idea of programming, like Scratch, for instance, which is a program Fairfax County has used, it really is about storytelling. Its cross curricular, it's literature. So it involves both the idea of logical thinking and cause and effect.
VANIt really gives everybody a level playing field across multiple areas. And I think that that's where it starts, which can then move into things more math and science oriented perhaps with robotics. At least in the experience that I've had here in Fairfax County, though I now live in Lynchburg. I'll listen to what y'all have to say off the air, but...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Marie desJardins comment.
DESJARDINSHi. Thanks, Van. I agree. I think Scratch is great, especially for kids who are just getting started and playing around with programming. I want to say a couple things. One is, I agree programming is about storytelling. It's about problem solving. It's about thinking things through carefully and I think it's a skill that everybody can benefit from, even if they never read another line of code in their life.
DESJARDINSAnd one of the things that I wanted to bring up today though is, as Pat said before, computer science is not just about coding. It's a little bit like if you started a conversation about math by saying, we need to make sure that every kid learns how to use a calculator.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Cliff who says, "Coding is not the same as computer science, the same way that speaking a language does not enable you to write great literature." But go ahead, please.
DESJARDINSCliff, you stole my thunder. Yeah, exactly right. Using a typewriter, using -- you know, using a tool. And programming is a really, really important tool, probably more important than a calculator. But what we need to emphasize is what we started to call computational thinking. And this has come out of the national conversation on this issue and partly out of the conversation about why there are not more girls and minorities. The previous AP computer science course is a job of programming course. It's very, very focused on the syntax of a particular programming language and very -- not very focused on problem solving.
DESJARDINSAnd so there's a new course under development that hopefully will become an AP course soon called Computer Science Principles. And we have an NSF grant, in fact, to develop curriculum and train teachers on this course, which is more focused on what you can do with computers and how it affects the world around you and how you can solve problems you care about and how you can understand data about things that you care about using the tool of programming. And so I think that's another avenue to get more people into the field and understand the value of it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our Tech Tuesday conversation on the push for computer science competency. But you can still call us at 800-433 8850. Have you taken a computer science course? How did you use what you learned? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Pat Yongpradit, director of education at Code.org, Marie desJardins, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Jan Cuny, director of the broadening participation in computing programming at the National Science Foundation about the push for computer science competency. And they're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have a kid who has expressed interest in computer science? How prepared do you think he or she is for a computer science curriculum?
NNAMDIJan Cuny, what about the standard AP computer science course in high schools throughout the country? Is it not doing enough for these rapidly changing times in technology?
CUNYNo, I think it's not. It's a course for -- a year-long course of Java programming. For kids who come from families where there are engineers in the families, they've had computers a long time, that makes sense. But for kids who are new to the field who have had no experience, programming in Java for a year is not what they need.
CUNYWhat they need is to really understand the basic concepts of computing. And also we need to inspire them as to what you can do with computing. Computing is transforming the world that they live in. It's changing the way we do science and engineering, the way we communicate, the way we play, the way we do education. It's going to change even the way we drive in the next decade or so.
CUNYSo kids need to see that computing can really be transformative and that they can have a role in that transformation, that it's not some people who are in unattainable status. It's something that ordinary kids could learn to program and could participate in this really exciting endeavor.
NNAMDIIndeed I think that's a point that John in Olney, Md. would like to make. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYeah, I was wondering, what level do they start teaching the fundamental theorem of arithmetic in?
NNAMDICould you repeat that, please? What...
JOHNYes. What level of...
NNAMDIWhat level do they start teaching the fundamental...
JOHN...pardon. What grade level do they teach the fundamental theorem of arithmetic in?
JOHNI've found PhD mathematicians and PhD computer sciences that don't know what I'm talking about.
NNAMDII don't either. What is the fundamental theory of arithmetic?
JOHNAll the twos you want and a one if you need it. Every number ends in either a even or odd. That's the theorem that makes it possible to do coding in the first place, ones and zeros. Numbers end in a one or a zero.
NNAMDII'm going to ask someone who's a little more expert than I am. Marie desJardins, what's your comment on this?
DESJARDINSWell, I'm not quite sure what John is asking about but I will talk about ones and zeros a little bit.
DESJARDINSThe amazing thing -- one of the many amazing things about computers is that everything inside the computer is represented as ones and zeros. Just a long string of ones and zeros, no letters, nothing. And yet, we are able to, through abstraction, create representations of anything. You know, geopolitical maps of the United States, this podcast that you might be listening to tomorrow, the algorithms for a self-driving car to go down the street.
DESJARDINSAnd so understanding all of the layers of representation and reasoning and meaning of thought that have to be created in order to go from zeros and ones up to say a self-driving car or an earth-orbiting satellite is the really neat part of computer science. And this is why a year of Java programming might not be as inspiring for some students as really understanding all that.
YONGPRADITAnd John, my job as an educator and all the other educators around the nation who are teaching students computer science at a very young age, some of which are, you know, even teaching students as young as elementary school age, our job is to make that -- the ones and zeros fun and exciting, and relevant to their lives so that they want to pursue the other beauties and joys in computing later on in their school age -- their school tenure.
YONGPRADITAnd so I think what's important here is that we understand that there are some fundamental concepts in computer science and even mathematics that are core to the experience. But we also need to make it engaging and fun for students.
NNAMDIMarie, are kids coming into undergraduate studies with high scores on the AP computer science test ahead of the game?
DESJARDINSThey're a little bit. They are. If they've taken the AP computer science A course and they score a 4 or 5, we let them place past the first year -- the first semester of programming. However, a lot of those students have not learned what I just -- I was making some notes here -- the three key skills that I actually think are more important than knowing how to program. One is problem solving. When something goes wrong, having some strategies to deal with it. And that's a life skill. That's not just a computer science skill.
DESJARDINSThe second is abstract thinking, being able to step away from the details of a problem and understand the fundamental idea behind it. And a lot of students don't have that. And AP computer science A does not teach you that. And persistence -- persistence and resilience in the face of failure, because a lot of computer science and programming is about things not working. And not giving up too easily is a really, really important skill. And I think these are bigger questions almost but it's part of what we have to get our students to have pore resilience and more problem-solving skills if they want to succeed in these areas.
NNAMDIJan, the National Science Foundation has led an effort to rethink and retool AP computer science courses in cooperation with the College Board. Tell us about the new AP computer science principles course that's slated to debut next year.
CUNYSo the new AP course is -- was built by about 100 different high school teachers and university faculties. So it was built with a large -- a lot of buy-in from the computer science community. And it's a really exciting course. It's designed to engage kids in computing to show them some robotics, to show them some phone applications, to really excite them about what you can do with computing.
CUNYIt also teaches programming but not in a language like Java that involves a lot of syntax and worrying about various -- where the commas go and stuff like that. It's much more drag and drop kind of language like Scratch so it's easier entry point for kids to be able to do something really fun to create a game or create a storytelling or animation so that they get really excited about how empowering computing is.
CUNYIt talks about big data. It talks -- which is really revolutionizing the way we do many things in many different fields. And it tries to inspire them about what they can do with computing and how it will, regardless of what their interests in life are, empower them to be more successful.
NNAMDINational Science Foundation is also supporting a program called CS10K that has a goal of preparing 10,000 teachers to teach computer science in 10,000 high schools by next year. Tell us about that program.
CUNYWell, that's kind of the next step. The first step that we did when we started to become interested and convince that high school computer science was critical was to create two new course or to fund a development of the College Board course and more entry level course called Exploring Computer Science. And as soon as those courses became viable and people were starting to pilot them, it was clear that we just didn't have the teachers.
CUNYAnd so the hardest problem, I think, before us right now is to figure out how to train -- NSF had a goal of 10,000 teachers, Code.org wants to put one in each school, so that's more like 30,000 -- but how to get these teachers trained. And NSF has started that with a series of projects. We've funded 16. We're funding about 8 more now. And Marie has one of those projects, but it's a project to really look at the ways in which we can train teachers in a scalable way. So how very quickly could the nation come up with enough teachers to carry this forward?
NNAMDISo what you're really saying is that I'm the only person in this room who does not have a project. That's what appears.
CUNYYou could apply, Kojo.
NNAMDII'm going to have me a project at some point. Right now let's talk with Lisa in Purcellville, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYeah, hi. My son is a student in Loudoun County schools, which I think is about 75,000 students. And I remember they -- somebody must've decided that they should all be introduced to language at an early age. So they were all in Spanish class in first grade one day a week. And I remember thinking -- he's going into 8th grade now -- in first grade if they had taken that one period of the week and done something more language oriented or even just intro to computer sciences and built on that, by 8th grade they would be ready to take a lot more than what they're able to take by jumping in with both feet in 9th or 10th grade in high school in just some sort of computer classes. That's the first time that they're introduced to it there.
LISAAnd he got absolutely nothing out of the language portion and is not continuing on with Spanish. But he certainly is going to have to continue on with computer understanding one way or the other regardless of what he does for a living. It would've been much more interesting for him to be not in a language or a coding side of it but in that building out of understanding how integral all the zeros and ones are to anything and everything. And I think it would really ignite interest in students a lot earlier on without having to, you know, really develop a whole program in a lot less time every week.
DESJARDINSYeah, so, Lisa, I agree with you. I've got two kids and they didn't take computer science at all at any point through school except for my daughter had to take it in 12th grade. And what I tell people a lot of the time when they ask, well why is computer science so hard? Why do you lose so many students? Why don't they pass the classes? Part of the reason is because if you come to college and you take an English class, that's after 12 years of studying English. If you come to college and take a math class, you've had 12 years studying math.
DESJARDINSIf you come to college and take a computer science class, you might, if you were very, very lucky, have had two years study in computer science. And so we're just -- we're really disadvantaging our kids to succeed in this area. And many countries are getting out there ahead of us. A lot of the Asian countries introduce these concepts early now. The UK requires computing starting in first grade, a lot of European countries. And so we have to figure out how to do this or we're getting behind.
NNAMDIThen what do you say to Mitch who says by email, and it's long so please hang with me. Mitch says, "Inserting computer science and programming into an already overflowing school curriculum is a very bad idea. Students need to know how to make the best use of technology in their basic work and core subjects but they don't need to spend precious time learning how the various devices work. We don't think it's necessary to teach auto mechanics and internal combustion engineering to all the people who drive. And we don't teach everyone how to tune up an airplane engine or the details of how a television screen works.
NNAMDIKids have a huge amount to absorb and they need to focus on basic problem solving skills, math and reading skills and general knowledge and to get all the help they can from technology. They don't need to be distracted with the ins and outs of computer science until that becomes the specific career they have chosen," to which you say what, Pat Yongpradit?
YONGPRADITI'd like to start by saying that...
NNAMDIOh, oh, this may take a while.
DESJARDINSHe's getting comfortable.
YONGPRADITWell, so, you know, hey Mitch, you know, I've thought that myself. And I've heard that before and that is a very common understanding. I mean, a lot of people, a lot of educators feel the same way that the curriculum is already chockfull of stuff that they're being made to teach. And the idea here is not to kick anything else out like math or science but really, I mean, you talked about integrating these types of ideas into these types of subjects.
YONGPRADITSo that's one approach, integrating computer science. And we're doing that at the middle school level, integrating modeling and simulation into science classes and integrating even things like video game design into algebra classes. So you can do that. But even more so, kids really should learn computer science because it's fundamental to all types of learning that Marie and Jan have already talked about.
YONGPRADITSkills like problem solving, decomposition, persistence. These are things that go beyond the devices themselves. So this is -- computer science is not about learning how to use an iPad. It's not even necessarily about how to create an app. It's really just about thinking and learning how to use the computer as a creative medium. So you're -- the analogy of like how, you know, we're not teaching -- we don't need to teach people how to fix an internal combustion engine or even understand an internal combustion engine unless they're going to become a mechanic doesn't really work here because a computer is not like a car.
YONGPRADITIt literally -- I mean, it obviously affects so much more than just transportation, number one. And number two, it itself is a medium in which other fields can thrive in. And so I'd say it's a fundamental subject that is useful for any kind of field you go into. And in terms of making room in the school schedule, we make room for lots of things. We make room for learning about H2O. We make room for dissecting a frog. I think in this day and age we really need to ask ourselves, are we making enough room for something that affects so much of our lives.
NNAMDICare to add to that, Marie?
DESJARDINSYeah, I wanted to just kind of go all the way to the other end of life and talk about careers. And there's two pieces of this. Number one is, as you know, STEM is a growing area. There's a lot more STEM jobs than there used to be. And as Jan mentioned, more than half of all STEM jobs are in computer science and computing. And, in fact, I looked at the statistics on the Bureau of Labor site and the top eight STEM employment areas are all different computer-related areas. Just -- it is coming. This is where the jobs are.
DESJARDINSI have never had a student graduate with a degree in computer science who did not get a good job right away. Just really never. And even in any other discipline, if you're going to be a biologist, if you're going to be a radio technician, if you're going to go into theater, it doesn't matter what you're going to do, you have to understand computers and how they work because they're integrated into everything now in a way they didn't used to be. And, in fact, knowing how a computer works is a heck of a lot more important than knowing how an internal combustion engine works in terms of understanding how a car works these days because that's the stuff that you interact with.
NNAMDII'd like to share an example of the kind of abstract or computational thinking that you've been talking about from an article that we found in Mother Jones this week in which the writer says, "There are those who open the pantry to find a dusty bag of legumes and think -- and some sad looking onions and think lentil soup, and those who think Chinese takeout. A practiced home cook can mentally sketch the path from raw ingredients to a hot meal, imagining how to substitute, divide, marriage, apply external processes, heat, stirring and so on until she achieves her end.
NNAMDIWhere the rest of us see a dead end, she sees the potential for something new. If seeing the culinary potential in raw ingredients is like computational thinking, you might think of a software algorithm as a kind of recipe, a step-by-step guide on how to take a bunch of random ingredients, and start layering them together in certain quantities for certain amounts of time until they produce the outcome you had in mind. How accurate is that?
DESJARDINSSo this is something I actually -- I just love talking about how computational thinking applies to life because I -- you know, I'm a problem solver. That's just kind of what I am by nature. But as I go through the world and I think about things that aren't working quite right or that could be better or things around me that, you know, I wish were different, I can think about that clearly and articulate it clearly largely because I have training in computer science.
DESJARDINSBecause the way that we are trained is to think very, very clearly and precisely about the problem we're trying to solve, very clearly and precisely about the resources we have -- what are the ingredients? -- and very clearly and precisely about the process. You've probably met people in your life who can't give directions. You know, how do you get to WAMU?
DESJARDINSWell, you go down that way -- no, wait, first you have to do this, but don't go past the -- and you get to the end of it, and you have no idea what they just said. A computer scientist will give you directions that are clear and complete and logical and at the right level of detail for you. And, like I said before, this is a life skill that you can apply to all kinds of things, even if you're not writing code.
NNAMDIHere is Owen in Ocean City, Md. Owen, your turn.
OWENOh, hi. I'd like to echo what was just said. I took a computer programming course by way of robotics back in high school in '05, '06. The purpose was to design a firefighting robot, navigate through a small maze, squirt a little bit of extinguisher to put out a small candle. We coded in BASIC. It's a coding language I've never seen anywhere else. I have never coded in it again.
OWENBut I now hold a job where I work extensively with data and big data. And I use those same core concepts of problem solving, logic, in my daily work. So what the former letter writer said about, you know, we need to teach -- focus on the basics. Well, if I hadn't had that computer programming course in high school, I wouldn't have been able to adapt to my career now, which is in no way related to computer programming.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call, your testimony if you will. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our Tech Tuesday conversation on the push for computer science competency. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. What big problems do you think today's computer scientists should be working on? You can send us an email to email@example.com or a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the push for computer science competency. We're talking with Jan Cuny, director of the broadening participation in computing program at the National Science Foundation, Marie desJardins -- she's a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- and Pat Youngpradit who is director of education at Code.org.
NNAMDIWe talked earlier about what was going on in places like Montana. I have been reading about what's going on in Mississippi. What we have not talked about is exactly what might be going on in this area. So I'd like to go around the table on that, starting with you, Pat.
YONGPRADITAll right. Well, I was a Montgomery County teacher, and for many years I worked on not just increasing the participation in computer science in my school itself, Springbrook High School, but also increasing it district wide. And so right now, as of this past year, there are about -- I think about eight schools, eight high schools, of the 25 or 26 high schools in Montgomery County that didn't offer their students an opportunity to learn about computer science.
YONGPRADITI mean, literally, you could go to one of these schools -- and some of these schools are -- might be kind of surprising to you if you have a son or daughter at one of these schools that your kids didn't get a chance to learn computer science, even if they wanted to. But, you know, we're working with Montgomery County to really make sure that every single high school student, no matter what high school you go to, can have an experience in computer science.
YONGPRADITIn Charles County Public Schools, every single school in Charles County -- Charles County Public Schools has about 28,000 to 30,000 students. Every single school in Charles County, K through 12, will give their students an opportunity to learn computer science. And I'd venture to say that that's probably the largest school district in the nation that has opportunities in computer science for kids aged 5 all the way to age 18. So that's some -- there's some pretty significant things going on in this local area. And Marie, she's doing work with high school teachers around the entire state.
DESJARDINSRight. So we have -- we're developing a local curriculum for CS Principles. We're looking at Common Core math standards and trying to integrate those and looking at what teachers in Maryland are teaching now and building on that. And the way that we're doing that is we have a leader teacher, master teacher model where we have -- I have three leader teachers who are my partners, who are really running the project with me, and then 13 master teachers from, I believe, eight different Maryland counties and two from D.C., who are going to work together over the summer to actually develop this curriculum and then teach the course in their home schools next year.
DESJARDINSAnd the following year, we'll train 30 teachers from all around Maryland and D.C. to teach the course. And those will be less experienced teachers who may not have taught computer science before or not taught at this level, and so that's our next challenge.
CUNYWell, we have a project -- we have Marie's project that National Science Foundation has funded, but we also have on in D.C. Most of our projects are partnerships between university faculty and high schools. And so we have one between Howard University faculty in the computer science and education departments working with the D.C. high schools. Currently, the first of our two course, exploring computer science, which is more kind of ninth, 10th grade course, is in 10 -- is in six D.C. schools.
CUNYIt's about to go up to 10. And some of these schools are actually building pathways from the middle schools theaters in -- doing computer science into those schools. They're also looking at taking the next step of offering the kids not just exploring computer science but CS Principles. It's being required for students on the CTE track. So it's both on the academic tracks and the CTE tracks, and it's really expanding from this one course throughout the city school system.
NNAMDIOn to Dennis in Chevy Chase, Md. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNISHi. I'm very curious. I think that there's an area that's discussed a little bit but not really crystallized. That is about what computer architecture does and how it allows people to realize dreams. And those dreams are in the abstract in some cases, but they become something that is nearly physical after it's implemented. And those dreams are amazing because they're not limited by physics. They're limited by the -- only the conceptual nature of the abstract thought and how it could be implemented.
DENNISSo you can take things -- like, what we do is to map out future technologies, and when you think about what that means, it's changing the way research and development works. And who would think about that other than a computer scientist? Because that's something that it seems like it's very physical, but when you look at -- from the computer science point of view, it's just another dream that's implementable.
DENNISSo that computer architecture and how that translates into the -- you might say just the mental state of the children that are learning about really can affect them throughout their entire life. They know after they learn enough, they know that they can't see very many dreams that they can't realize as long as they're not physical. So I think that the discussion about computer science has to be really crystallized on that more esoteric architectural level.
DESJARDINSYeah. I do -- I mean, I do think -- I agree with you. I think that what you can do with a computer is -- it's not unlimited. There are constraints. But it's a lot less limited than the physical world and that the kind of creativity that you need to be a really successful computer scientist -- people don't think of creativity as being part of computer science usually, but it really is -- is what's led to all kinds of innovations.
DESJARDINSAnd if you think about it, you know, I actually grew up in Howard County, Md. a while ago, not too long ago. But I didn't have a computer. I didn't know anybody who had a computer. And now the reach of computers and the Internet and cellphones and the way that our lives have fundamentally changed all centers around computers. And the way that they're going to change in the next 30 years is, I think, almost unimaginable.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this email we got from Peter in Arlington and a question that I have. Peter writes, "Aren't there programs that write programs? If one were to learn a computer language, what should it be? Can't the hot language today become yesterday's code when the next best thing comes around?"
NNAMDIDespite the proliferation of coding boot camps and the push to increase students' computer science skills, there's also a train of thought, probably exemplified by Peter, that says computer programming might be a dying art, kind of like knowing Latin or writing in cursive. Newsweek recently cited work by the military science lab known as DARPA. Its program called Muse will be able to suck up all of the world's open source code and perform any task people ask of it. I'd like to get your thoughts on this. Are computers becoming so sophisticated that coding may become obsolete?
DESJARDINSSo I actually -- my other hat that I wear at work is I'm an artificial intelligence researcher, so I could come back. And we could have a whole show talking about that.
NNAMDIAnd we probably will.
DESJARDINSYeah. Sure. Some of that is going to become more and more doable. When we first created computers, the way that you programmed them was you walked up to them, and you flipped some switches on the front, a lot of switches on the front. And then eventually we invented punch cards and languages, like Fortran, pretty low level, and gradually invented more and more high level languages and more and more sophisticated ways to communicate what we wanted the computer to do to the computer.
DESJARDINSThat is never going away, I don't think. So the language might change -- and this is why I say the language is not important. The problem solving skills are important, and the clarity of thought is important. To write something that can rewrite its own code requires a lot of human intelligence, and I think we're pretty far away from computers that will take over the world and rewrite themselves and, you know, become Skynet. But we're headed in that direction. But we're not headed away from people having to have these fundamental computational thinking skills.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Barry in Falls Church. "I'm interested in the new AP computer science class that your guest mentions. When can we expect it in schools in this area? And can you provide more details about what kids will be learning in this course? Will the course be standard across the country? Or would it vary depending on the expertise of who's teaching it?"
CUNYWell, that's a great question. The course itself is a College Board course. And the way the College Board creates all of their courses is they build a framework for it. So the framework describes the kinds of things that kids need to know and how you would know that they knew it, so what the assessment for those kinds of things would involve. And that framework is then published. And teachers are able to create whatever course, whatever curriculum they want, that matches that framework. And the test is created from the framework. So that's how the College Board does all of its tests.
CUNYWhat that means in computer science is that there are many different flavors of this computer science, CS Principles, course. Code.org's developing one. Marie is developing one. There are several at different universities that NSF has funded. And so teachers who want to teach this course can go and get professional development from one of the providers of these course, one of the universities or organizations that's offering the courses. The courses are all free and online, so anyone can access it. Or they can mix and match and put pieces together.
CUNYThen the College Board looks over the course that the teacher proposes, and they give it their stamp of approval. So there'll be a bunch of different varieties, but they will all match the framework. And the framework contains seven big ideas of computing which includes abstraction and representation in programming and collaboration in big data, and a number of other things. And those ideas are what we consider -- or what the people involved in the development consider the critical parts of computational thinking that all students need to know.
NNAMDIHere's Colin in Hagerstown, Md. Hi, Colin. Your turn.
COLINHi, Kojo. Great show. I graduated UMBC in 2011 with environmental science and GIS. And I graduated Linganore High School in Frederick, Md. in 2006. I took the AP computer science test in 2006, and I'm not certain if it's still the same. But the test was in the language of JAVA, but it was on pencil and paper. Will the new AP test be on pencil and paper still?
NNAMDIJan would really like to respond to that one.
CUNYThe new AP test is just being designed now. It's being piloted in a bunch of places, and it's a really exciting test. It'll first be available in 2017 in the spring, so the classes will start in the fall although many schools are already piloting the course now. But the test itself is going to be the first time that the College Board has created a portfolio test for a subject other than art. And the idea is that the skills that you learn in programming and problem solving are not skills that translate well onto a paper and pencil test.
CUNYAnd so you will actually create computational artifacts during the year and reflect on those artifacts. And if you go on to take the test, which will be, you know, typical fill in the dot test, then your portfolio will be assembled with that test. And they will both be part of your grade. It's a really exciting opportunity to do something new and something that will be, you know, completely on the computers for the kids.
DESJARDINSAnd if you are a parent and you're interested in having your kid take this class, it would behoove you to approach your county and encourage them to offer the class because this is going to be a process and a decision that each county individually is going to have to make on whether to put some resources into offering this class.
NNAMDIPat, we only have about a minute left. But do you worry about the future of innovation and hardware and the science and technology that goes into all of these cool apps we now enjoy?
YONGPRADITDo I worry about the future?
YONGPRADITActually, I'm quite excited. I think about kids who are learning from the age of 5 about computers and the power behind them and what they can do with them and then later on, learning about modeling and simulation and video game design and then later on learning about, you know, how they can impact the world around them, you know, address social causes through computing, creating apps, or whatever.
YONGPRADITI'm also thinking about kids who maybe don't go as far as the kids I just described. Maybe they just have one or two or three experiences, but really they realize that there's a lot of power in computing and that with the right type of idea, they can just impact the world in a way that they never could have before.
NNAMDIPat Yongpradit is director of education at Code.org. Marie desJardins is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And Jan Cuny is director of the broadening participation in computing program at the National Science Foundation. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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