Got Computer Science? You Should

Because this week, Dec. 7—13, is Computer Science Education Week, sat down with Jeffrey R.N. Forbes, associate professor of the practice of computer science at Duke University, to discuss computer science education and how essential it is to address it through the lens of social justice.

Last month, Forbes was named chair of the ACM Education Policy Committee, a high-level group of computer scientists and educators dedicated to improving opportunities for quality education in computer science and computing education around the world. In this role, Forbes and other committee members will play an important role in developing initiatives aimed at shaping education policy that affects computing education.

[RELATED: Lack of Talent Pipeline a ‘Myth’ Says Congressional Black Caucus Chair] Why is computer science so important?

Forbes: It’s interesting, I worked at the National Science Foundation from 2011 to 2014, and at that time, if you talked about computer science education, people were confused about what that meant. But now you’re starting to see parents ask about what opportunities there are for their children in school; the computing community is really rallying around that. The Education Policy Committee has the ability to make sure that access to quality computer science education is available to a broader set of students than currently has been the case.

It is certainly true that schools with more resources tend to offer advanced placement computer science. We often focus on AP because we can very clearly identify what they’re actually doing. In schools that have fewer resources that say they have a computer science course, what they actually have is a typing course, or a course in how to use Microsoft Word.

So one of the things that ACM has been pushing successfully for is getting people to understand that computer science does not just mean being a consumer of computer technology. It means actually creating technology, writing programs, engaging with computational tools in a real academic way. So we now have twice as many schools offering AP computer science as we did four years ago, but it’s important to recognize that the percentage of schools offering it has gone down over 20 years, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Retaining high-quality computer science teachers is a challenge. We were involved in a project that took unemployed IT people who worked as teachers. But after the economy improved, they left. Or schools’ budgets were crunched during the recession and the first teachers they let go are the computer science teachers because computer science courses aren’t required.

So what’s going to happen? In addition to getting more high quality computer science courses out there, we want them to fulfill a high school graduation or university entry requirement; that would make high quality computing education sustainable.

What is the significance of the AP computer science course?
AP is a lever that provides reliable statistics and some fidelity of replication–a more or less standardized approach, and there’s going to be a new one next year: AP Computer Science Principles is designed fundamentally around participation in computer science, whereas the old course focused on programming. The new one clearly shows the connection to all the incredible things you can do in computer science, which was not always clear with the old course–which some described as tedious and painful.

The new course is a broad view of computing designed to engage students. It looks at the creative aspects and the societal impact of computing. Many colleges have gotten behind it. Using AP as a kind of gauge doesn’t solve everything because so many schools don’t offer it. It’s important to note that AP computer science has a much lower percentage of African Americans taking it than AP calculus.

So, even schools that have resources to offer an AP calculus course may not be offering a computer science course, or African American students may not be taking the course.

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