Teaching computer science — without computers

Teaching computer science doesn’t require computers, writes Annie Murphy Paul for the Hechinger Report. Computer Science Unplugged designs activities that teach the “computational thinking” that underlies computer systems.

A group of children on a playground, each kid clutching a slip of paper with a number on it, moves along a line drawn in chalk, comparing numbers as they go and sorting themselves into ascending order from one to ten.

Another group of children, sitting in a circle, passes pieces of fruit — an apple, an orange — from hand to hand until the color of the fruit they’re holding matches the color of the T-shirt they’re wearing.

. . . In the first activity, they’ve turned themselves into a sorting network: a strategy computers use to sort random numbers into order. And in the second activity, they’re acting out the process by which computer networks route information to its intended destination.

Computer Science Unplugged has been developed at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand over the past two decades. Games, puzzles and tricks are aimed at children in kindergarten through seventh grade.

 Youngsters can tackle topics as apparently abstruse as algorithms, binary numbers, Boolean circuits, and cryptographic protocols.

. . . Younger children might learn about “finite state automata” — sequential sets of choices — by following a pirates’ map, dashing around a playground in search of the fastest route to Treasure Island.

Later, students can learn to program a computer.

Teach programming, statistics — not calculus

Get rid of high school calculus to make way for computer programming and statistics, writes Steven Salzberg in Forbes.

With computers controlling so much of their lives, from their phones to their cars to the online existence, we ought to teach our kids what’s going on under the hood. And programming will teach them a form of logical reasoning that is missing from the standard math curriculum.

With data science emerging as one of the hottest new scientific areas, a basic understanding of statistics will provide the foundation for a wide range of 21st century career paths.

Most students won’t need calculus, Salzberg writes. Those who do can take it in college.

If a few top universities announced they value programming and statistics as highly as calculus,  “our high schools would sit up and take notice,” he writes.

I’m not sure everyone needs computer science, but I would like to see non-calculus alternatives for non-STEM students.

When my daughter was entering 12th grade, I suggested she take AP Statistics, which I thought she might be able to use in the future.  The college counselor said AP Statistics was considered second rate. Elite colleges demanded AP Calculus.

My daughter earned a C in calculus her first semester. The counselor said she’d doomed her college chances. So Allison dropped the course to do an independent study on American poetry, was rejected by Yale, Brown, Penn, etc. and went to UCLA, where she earned an A+ in statistics. After two years, she transferred to Stanford, where she dabbled in programming. (“Everyone knows Java,” she said.)

UW seeks ‘equity’ in grades, majors

Blacks and Latinos should achieve “equity” in grades and high-demand majors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, according to the Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence passed by the Faculty Senate. No one challenged the plan or debated the consequences, charges W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus economics professor, in Madness in Madison.

The framework is vague, a “thicket of cliches,” writes Hansen. However, an Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee has formulated goals and recommendations based on “Inclusive Excellence” framework  adopted earlier by the Board of Regents.

The  “representational equity” section calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

What does that mean?

 Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

I’m sure “equity” in grades and majors is a goal, not a mandate. UW professors wouldn’t turn Asian-American males away from computer science majors and tell them to try sociology, Spanish or African-American Studies instead. They wouldn’t set different grading standards by race and ethnicity or give everyone A’s to erase an achievement gap.


If UW wants to help underprepared students succeed in demanding majors, there are real things the university could do. Work with high schools and community colleges to improve readiness. Rethink counseling and tutoring. Set up summer jobs in STEM fields.

Helping minority students earn good grades is a worthy goal, writes Ann Althouse, also a UW professor. “We want all our students to do well.” 

The gender gap is TEM-only

Here’s the percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012) courtesy of Randal S. Olson.


More than 80 percent of degrees in health and public administration are earned by women, he notes. Nearly 80 percent of education and psychology degrees also go to women. In biology, women earn 58 percent of degrees.

Even in math, statistics and physical sciences, women earn more than 40 percent of degrees. Business is close to 50-50.

He flips the chart to show that men are lagging in everything but engineering, computer science, physical science, math and statistics. Women are close to parity in everything but engineering and computer science.

Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic — and coding

Audrey Hagan, left, and Amelia Flint, both 8, learning to code last month at an event in Mill Valley, Calif. Jason Henry for The New York Times

Computer coding for kids is a “national education movement that is growing at Internet speeds,” reports the New York Times.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.

“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School.

Code.org, a tech-industry group, is offering free curricula and pushing districts to add programming classes — and not just in high school. In nine states, students earn math — not elective — credits for computer science classes. Chicago’s public school system hopes to make computer science a graduation requirement in five years.

In Mill Valley, elementary school children and their parents solved animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic. Many parents see coding as “a basic life skill,” says the Times. Or perhaps the “road to riches.”

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.

Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. It’s as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

I’m not convinced that everyone needs to learn programming in order to use computers. And it’s not the only way to learn logic.

My three-year-old nephew was playing Angry Birds on his tablet today, prepping for his future as a high-tech zillionaire. That 7-year-old in Mill Valley is so far behind.

Students like STEM but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Nursing is a dream career for many young women from working-class families. Perhaps their brothers dream of being computer techs. It takes a strong foundation in math and science to turn those dreams into reality.

Is the STEM shortage a myth?

On the Big Bang Theory, physicist Sheldon visits neuroscientist Amy in her lab.

The shortage of scientists and engineers is a myth, writes Michael S. Teitelbaum in The Atlantic.  If there were a real shortage, wages would be rising, he writes. To the contrary, “real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.”

U.S. students earn mediocre scores on international exams because large numbers of high performers are balanced by lots of low performers, he argues. 

. . . there continues to be a large pool of top science and math students in the U.S. OECD data on “high-performing” students suggests that the U.S. produces about 33 percent of the world total in this category in the sciences, though only about 14 percent in mathematics.

“Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics — essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well,” he writes. But that doesn’t mean there’s a huge unmet demand for scientists and engineers.  

The STEM shortage myth is a myth, responds Robert D. Atkinson in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide. Science and engineering graduates are finding jobs — not just in tech-based industries — at higher wages.

As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell shows, the earnings premium for STEM skills (controlling for experience, education and sex) has grown from around 22 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2012. Dartmouth’s Matt Slaughter and UC San Diego’s Gordon Hanson found that “the inflation-adjusted wages of major STEM occupations grew over the last decade while real wages for most other U.S. occupations fell.” Hardly evidence of surplus.

STEM shortage denial is rooted in a desire to keep out high-tech immigrants, Atkinson argues.

You can’t go wrong with a computer science major, writes Yahoo’s Rick Newman, looking at PayScale’s 2014 College Report. 

Only two of 288 schools that offer computer science — Indiana University-Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth — produced a return below the median for their graduates. At the top of the scale, meanwhile, more than a dozen computer-science schools returned $1 million or more over 20 years, making this the top-performing field.

By contrast, the return-on-investment for business majors varies depending on the college, he points out. “At nine schools, including Fayetteville State in North Carolina, the University of Montevallo in Alabama and Colorado Mesa University, students studying business actually earned a negative return, according to PayScale. That means they would have done better, on average, if they went to work right out of high school and never spent money on college.”

The earnings data relies on self-reporting, so be wary.

In This is Not Your Father’s STEM Job, Jessica Lahey looks at women who are “forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.”

But are they typical of female STEM workers? Probably not.

Programming for all?

 Computer science should be a high school graduation requirement, argues Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. He wants more girls to give programming a try so they’ll have a shot at Silicon Valley jobs.

In a series called Women in Computing: The Promise Denied, Cassidy focuses on the declining share of women who choose computer science majors: By 2011, it was down to 17.6 percent.

Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.

A Berkeley class called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” draws as many women as men. In addition to teaching programming, lecturer Dan Garcia explores how computer science can solve real-world problems.

Garcia is training high school teachers to teach computing and creating a MOOC for would-be computer science teachers.

Everyone should take a computer class, says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Cassidy thinks girls would like programming if they tried it.

Imagine if classes were widely available and that girls were required to take computer science in high school or earlier. They would see how computing often requires teamwork and is a key tool in other areas, such as medicine, environmental science, finance, politics and space exploration — thereby putting a lie to the stereotype that programming is a solitary pursuit in which writing cool code is an end in itself.

A group of “tech superstars” have started Code.org to push state legislatures and school boards to add computer science to the list of core college-prep courses. “Co-founder Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-area angel investor and coding evangelist, says the organization will pay to train existing K-12 teachers to teach computer science,” reports Cassidy. The group wants a class in every high school.

In Rebooting the Pathway to Success, the Association for Computing Machinery calls for expanding K-12 computer science education and making it part of the STEM core.

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people — female, male, whatever — to learn programming. I took a computer class in high school myself in the days of paper tape readers. (I took it to meet boys, not realizing I’d meet nerdy boys.)

But I don’t think mandatory programming will make significantly more girls — or blacks and Latinos — see coding as “cool.” It’s cool if you’re into logic. I did some programming in college too in a “math for non-math majors” class. I liked it. Everyone else hated it.

And I’m very dubious about adding graduation requirements. If computer science is added, something else should be deleted. Maybe a programming language can substitute for a foreign language?

What jobs will the robots take?

The robots are coming to take our jobs, but which jobs will the robots take? Derek Thompson looks at the future of automation in The Atlantic.

. . . in the past 30 years, software and robots have thrived at replacing a particular kind of occupation: the average-wage, middle-skill, routine-heavy worker, especially in manufacturing and office admin.

Nearly half of American jobs today could be automated in “a decade or two,” according to a new paper discussed in The Economist. That includes retail, transportation, cashiers and counter clerks. (They’ll go even faster if the minimum wage is raised significantly.”

The 10 jobs on the chart have a 99-percent likelihood of being replaced by machines and software, writes Thompson. “They are mostly routine-based jobs (telemarketing, sewing) and work that can be solved by smart algorithms (tax preparation, data entry keyers, and insurance underwriters).”

The least vulnerable to automation are managers and health care and public safety workers.

Thompson concludes: “Machines are better at rules and routines; people are better at directing and diagnosing. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.”

For a cheerier view of the future, check out Are Robots Taking Our Jobs or Making Our Jobs?

Volokh’s Kenneth Anderson sees a future in skilled manual labor as in the “maker” movement.

Computer science majors get the most job offers, reports Forbes. Economics, accounting and engineering majors also are likely to have a job offer before they graduate.

PISA: No U.S. gender gap in math, science

U.S. girls do as well as boys in math and science on the PISA exam, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

 In many other countries, the 2012 OECD report notes, “marked gender differences in mathematics performance—in favour of boys—are observed.”

Three years ago, American boys outperformed girls in math on PISA; their science scores were similar.

However, the STEM gender gap hasn’t vanished, reports Erik Robelen.

Take the AP program. In all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011.

U.S. girls aren’t as confident as their male classmates, the 2012 PISA report found.

[E]ven when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem-solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics and more anxiety about mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

Young women are losing ground in computer science, according to Change the Equation: Women earned 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing in 2012, down from 27 percent about a decade earlier. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2001.