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CSEdWeek Takes Hold

Leah Buechley of MIT

MIT's Leah Buechley engages students with her method of creating cloth printed circuit boards in the form of wallpaper.

Credit: Leah Buechley / MIT

It is nothing short of ironic that in the digital age, instruction about computers and computing is woefully lacking. A 2010 ACM report, Running on Empty, found that only nine states in the U.S. count computer science courses as a core academic subject in high school graduation requirements and the total number of courses offered by secondary schools has declined over the last several years. Yet, by 2018, a projected 1.4 million new computing jobs will exist and the current pipeline of graduates will fill only about half of these positions.

"In some schools where AP computer science was once taught, classes have been eliminated," says Debra Richardson, a professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine. "In others, real computer science has never been taught and what is called computing or computer science is just literacy in technology and applications. The difference is whether you understand how to create computing technology or are just able to use it."

As a result, computing scientists, educators, and others are banding together to raise awareness about the impact of computing in today's society. CSEdWeek, which originated in 2009, focuses on how computer science education prepares today's youth for the digital age. The December 4–10 event features programs at businesses, universities, and K–12 schools that are designed to stimulate interest in computing sciences and show the viability of careers in the field.

According to Richardson, who chairs CSEdWeek, the U.S. and other countries are falling further behind the computing curve. From 2005 to 2009, the percentage of U.S. high schools offering classes in computing sciences has fallen from 40% to 27%. In addition, only 17% of those taking advanced placement computing science tests are women and 11% are minorities.

The fallout is significant, says Ruthe Farmer, director of the National Center for Women & Information Technology and vice chair for CSEdWeek. Businesses and other institutions consistently lose out on talent as individuals that could find work as computer engineers, designers, and developers stream into other fields. The lack of women and minorities compounds the problem—particularly as organizations focus on designing better products and solutions across a diverse group of consumers.

CSEdWeek aims to address these gaps and social inequities. The organization has asked individuals from around the world to pledge support and develop an educational activity or program in their community. Groups from more than 130 countries, including Brazil, India, and Kenya, are now involved in the initiative.

At the University of California, Berkeley, more than 50 high school students visited the campus in 2010 to learn about robotics, animation, artificial intelligence, game analysis, and other topics. "It's important to get students exposed to computing sciences at a young age," says Joshua Paley, a computer science and mathematics teacher at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, CA. Last year, he led the visit to Berkeley and helped develop a programming contest that attracted nearly 50 students. "It offered a window into computer science puzzles and problems," he explains.

At the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, a group of professors and students focused on the theme "Our Lives Without Computer Science." They created an award-winning video as well as a demonstration, with both hardware and software, of the classic Simon Says game. School children could play with the hardware, edit the software, and learn about how everything interconnects. "It's powerful because they can see themselves as future computer scientists," says Nayda G. Santiago, an associate professor in the school's electrical and computer engineering department.

"Schools must move beyond basic technology literacy curriculum and add courses that warm students up to computer science," concludes Richardson. "The future depends on it."

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Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.

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UF1Figure. MIT's Leah Buechley engages students with her method of creating cloth printed circuit boards in the form of wallpaper.

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