Organizations work to improve computer science education in United States

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Computers are now critical for work in almost any field, yet few students leave high school with computer science training. While teachers can choose from hundreds of curricula and programs to teach math and science, there are hardly any such resources for computer science.

Recognizing this gap, organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the non-profit Code.org have pushed to improve computer science education in the United States, particularly in urban schools and for minority students under-exposed to the discipline. To achieve these goals, both have engaged with Outlier Research & Evaluation, a unique group at the University of Chicago.

Outlier is the research and evaluation arm of the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education, a center devoted to improving pre-college STEM learning that resides within the Physical Sciences Division of the University. Since 2002, CEMSE has worked with schools, school districts and government and private sector clients to develop and assess curricula, support high quality programs and create new tools for educators.

“Stimulating the curiosity of today’s young students for math and science is critical for creating tomorrow’s physicists, mathematicians and cosmologists,” said Rocky Kolb, dean of the Physical Sciences Division. “The work of CEMSE to study and improve STEM programs is integral to the University’s long-standing commitment to support high quality, pre-college education for all students.”

In early 2014, CEMSE’s research and development arm rebranded itself as Outlier, a cleverly mathematical name for a group whose mission is to provide knowledge and tools to advance education. For clients such as the Field Museum, Google and higher education programs within the University, Outlier measures the implementation and success of programs through a variety of data collection techniques including surveys, focus groups and observations. Outlier also conducts research on complex issues affecting STEM education, including STEM school models, implementation of educational interventions, and spread and sustainability of innovations in schools.

Outlier has increasingly expanded its work to include computer science education, a discipline not usually included in the STEM conversation despite its close relationship to all four components.

“Computer science does not have historical roots in the origins of education in this country and suffers from being misunderstood and undervalued,” said Jeanne Century, director of Outlier. “There is no doubt that if we are to make progress as a nation, we need to elevate the visibility and credibility of computer science as an essential part of K-12 public education.”

The National Operating System for CS Education

Through a program called CS10K, the National Science Foundation aims to build the educational foundation to support their goal of getting 10,000 “well-trained” teachers teaching engaging, rigorous high school computer science courses by 2016.

However, many questions remain about the current state of CS education. Should it be a required course? Can CS fold into math, science or even foreign language classes? Most importantly, do teachers and students have a clear sense of what computer science is, and how it is essential today for many different careers?

“Most high schools teach students how to use applications like PowerPoint, e-mail and Word, but that's not what we mean by CS,” said Jan Cuny, a program officer at the National Science Foundation. “We want students go beyond knowing how to use technology to knowing something about how to create technology.”

To understand the broader landscape of computer science education in the United States, the Association of Computing Machinery, in partnership with the NSF, Google, Microsoft and other groups, commissioned Outlier (in collaboration with the Urban Education Institute) in 2012 to produce the Building an Operating System for Computer Science report. The project was a first-of-its-kind assessment of CS education presented online as an interactive report to reach a diverse audience of practitioners, researchers, policy-makers and advocates, said Sarah Rand, an associate project director at Outlier.

“Overall, the research showed that there are many strong advocates working hard to advance computer science education, but there is still much ground to cover in terms of ensuring that all learners have access to quality instructional resources and teaching,” Century said.

After completing the OS4CS report, Outlier received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation for additional research: the Barriers and Supports to Implementing Computer Science, or BASICS, study. The project examines the implementation of introductory computer science in several large school districts with a focus on identifying the key supports for and barriers to realizing computer science education opportunities for all students.

In this study, Outlier will examine how CS programs are implemented in different environments and with different populations of students. The study will provide valuable information about the barriers and support CS may encounter as it is expanded into more communities as part of CS10K, Cuny said.

“Our hope is to find the best practices and approaches that can be scaled,” Cuny said.

After The First Hour of Code

During Computer Science Education Week in December 2013, 15 million students in 170 countries tried an online programming lesson as part of Hour of Code, writing 500 million lines of code—10 times the amount that powers Microsoft Windows. The effort, promoted by A-list talent such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, NBA player Chris Bosh, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and musician Will.I.Am, was the impressive debut of Code.org, a non-profit driven to encourage people of all ages to learn programming skills.

The organization now hopes to use the momentum from Hour of Code to improve computer science education in United States public schools, by developing new curricula, expanding existing programs and offering professional development opportunities for teachers, said Jake Baskin, K-12 District Outreach Program Manager.

“Our overall mission is to provide every student in the country with the opportunity to learn computer science,” said Baskin, formerly a CS teacher at the Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago.

To ensure that their educational programs are working towards these goals, Code.org connected with Outlier, which will initially perform an evaluation of the organization’s professional development offerings for CS teachers. Over the next year, Outlier will conduct teacher interviews and do field observations of Code.org-supported courses in seven regions around the country, including Chicago.

The evaluation will help Code.org scale up their programs to reach more schools around the country, Baskin said, and create sustainable computer science courses that become a core part of a school’s curriculum even after the nonprofit moves on.

“The results of the evaluation are really essential to everything we’re doing, and will give us checkpoints to see how we can improve our programs,” Baskin said. “We’re teaching students the importance of data analysis and how to think logically about what they are doing, so having a strong evaluation of our own program makes good sense.”

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Two kids sitting at desks with laptops
Two kids sitting at desks with laptops

Outlier will examine how computer science programs are implemented in different communities, providing valuable information about the barriers and support these courses may encounter as they are expanded.

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