I spend a lot of time these days doing two things–learning to program and thinking about the best way to teach computer science. In case you didn’t know, not only is there a decline in the number of women in computer science, which interests me greatly, but there’s a general decline in people of any gender interested in computer science. The reasons for the decline are complex. Some of it is undoubtedly, the dot com bust of the late 90s when there was a kind of glut of CS majors and/or CS enthusiasts. That left a lot of unemployed programmers around. That, in turn, lead to a cooling of interest at the college level and CS at the high school level has either evolved into teaching applications or disappeared entirely.
At the high school level, I feel like there are a number of issues that keep CS from becoming a more popular subject. One, there aren’t a lot of qualified teachers around. In this, I feel like part of the problem rather than part of the solution, but more on that later. There aren’t a lot of CS majors who choose to go teach CS at the high school level. I know several students who thought about it, but then a lucrative opportunity presents itself and they leap at the chance. And I don’t blame them. Two, CS has to compete with a lot of other things: math, science, biology, English, art, music, etc. To get CS into a curriculum, something has to give, either for an individual student or for a school as a whole. Those are hard decisions to make.
I just spent the day participating in a conference for K-12 CS teachers. Mostly, it was meant to inspire us and help us get more girls interested in CS. Since I teach all girls, it’s not about the proportion of girls in CS, but numbers. I got a lot of good ideas for helping sell the idea of taking a CS course to young women.
And then when I got home, I finally got around to reading this article about the importance of CS to a non-CS person. Carey makes a good point about getting kids to understand the logic behind programming, to understand how things work. That’s something I’m really focused on teaching at the middle school level. I find students don’t know very basic ideas about computers and networks. And in this way, I think, I’m not entirely so far off because I’m not a “programmer.” In many ways, I have always been influence by CS even when I wasn’t doing what most people would call programming. I’ve understood the inner workings of a computer since I was in junior high. By college, I really knew how they worked, tried out another CS course, wasn’t interested and moved on to writing poetry. But, as I was telling a young woman today, back in the good old days, you had to have some knowledge about the inner workings of computers and networks just to log onto a computer. There was no double-clicking an icon to connect to something or as it is now, just being always on the network. I had to know not just a login name and password but a network address for where I was logging into. So long before I saw my first URL, I understood the blah.blah.blah structure. Sending e-mail required similar knowledge. I worked on a variety of machines even then. I readily switched from a Mac to a PC to a Linux machine to a SPARC to a NEXT (remember those?). And while having that capability does not make me a computer scientist by any means, it gives me an understanding of computers that many students today lack. And I think it’s worth having that skill today.
A stat I heard today that surprised me and that had I heard it back when I was in high school might have sent me in a different direction was that only about 5% of the population is equally skilled in math/science and verbal ability. And that those skills are especially useful in digital media work. Being able to translate between the computer geeks and the business people and vice versa is huge. I do that. I’m doing that now. It’s what teaching is, really. Had I known how valuable that was to a technical career early on, I might be in a different place. I might not be coding in my off hours to keep ahead of my students. But I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my job, and part of what I love about it is that it’s about translating something complex (and sometimes intimidating) to people. I need to remember to give those good messages to my students. That’s what I missed when I was in high school. I got put in a particular box, even when my actual skill set showed that there were other possible boxes for me. Or better yet, a life outside the box, which, in a way, is where I am at the moment.