There's nothing "elective" about computer science education

December 4 marked the beginning of Computer Science Education Week, and I'd like to take a moment to consider how the business community might support K-12 schools as they respond to this rapidly changing field.

Many years ago when computer science courses first appeared in schools, they were considered “extra” and categorized as electives. The content of many of these courses focused on learning computer applications like word processing, spread sheets or programming skills. Today those same computing skills and computer applications are no longer extra; they are essential to almost any career in our global economy. In order to remain relevant, schools must move beyond the teaching of computer skills to higher levels of computer science so students can apply those skills to think critically and solve real problems. In other words, we need to be teaching students to use technology to innovate. 

This is not only a challenge for schools, it is an economic challenge for our country. We need graduates who are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. According to data provided by the National Center for Women in Information Technology, 61 percent of US job openings could be filled by graduates with some form of computer science degree. Take a look at the national map to see if there is a skills gap in your state.

So how are the particular, how are the schools in your state...meeting this challenge? Last year the Computer Science Teachers' Association published Computer Science Education Standards. These standards provide a thoughtful approach to integrating computational thinking in K-12. The standards begin with elementary concepts in the lower grades and lead to advanced concepts in high school. Sadly, only 14 states have adopted these standards to a significant degree, and only 9 states classify computer science as a core subject area.

You can see how your state ranks by clicking on the map located in Running on Empty. This report provides data about how every state teaches computer science, as well as whether they categorize it as an elective or a core subject. I would encourage you to take a look and support schools as they move in the direction of these standards. The standards have been developed by computer science educators and reviewed and endorsed by organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

...and speaking of mathematics, have you checked to see how your state is implementing the Common Cores State Standards in Mathematics? I'll be writing about that challenge in a future blog post, but it is very clear that the business community has a crucial role in this process. More later...

tags: computer science education week, education, k-12, stem


  1. Jeff Neblett
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I agree that computer skills are more essential than ever but we also need to have direction in the fundamentals. That requires discipline in study which I think is severely lacking in today's system. Rock solid rigorous training in math and science, and reasoning skills is essential. I think too many people like to play with computers or smart phones but when it comes to doing the actual critical thinking, we as a society are not where we should be.

    I think that having a safe and focused place to go to school where there is positive peer pressure to excell is also crucial. When kids compete in a healthy manner and push other kids to do well, I think that makes all the difference in the world. I also think that in any skill, repetition is key. I am a big believer in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule of mastery of a task. I see it all around me. Those who work the hardes on a task whether it be athletics, entertainment or another profession are the ones who succeed. I have seen time and time again hard work and some talent beat no work and a lot of untapped raw talent.

    I personally would forego to a certain extent the use of the computer, at least early on. I remember in my calculus classes in engineering school, we were not permitted to have calculators to work out the problems. The reasoning was that people would learn to rely on them too much and people would view the tests as calculator drills. The problems were very rigorous but if done properly, they came out to answers that did not require a calculator to compute.

    Computer skills are important but before you get to that destination, a student needs to have the focus and discipline to master the analytical reasoning skills and mathematical concepts. Otherwise, they may be just going through the motions on a high priced machine.

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Jeff, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you'll be pleased as you explore the new Computer Science Curriculum Standards. They begin with the basics in the elementary grades and move to more complex concepts and application of skills in the upper grades. The real challenge is getting more students excited about learning these skills, and that's where I think folks like you can play a huge role. I hope you'll connect with your local school and perhaps volunteer to talk with some students about the exciting things they can do with computer science knowledge.

  2. Chris Stephenson
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The argument for computer science breaks down to three key factors: 1. When we talk about the importance of learning computer science, we are not talking about teaching our students to be passive users and consumers of technology. We are providing them with the scientific foundations needed to become the technology creators of tomorrow. Not every kid needs to become a computer scientists but every kid needs to understand the fundamentals of this science just as much as they need to understand the fundamentals of any current course in the academic "core" This is a knowledge imperative. 2. Computer science is the only discipline that produces far fewer graduates than jobs and we need to provide students with the opportunity to compete for those jobs. This is an economic imperative. The U.S. needs US citizens with the skills to protect our critical systems and cyber infrastructure. This is a security imperative.

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Great points from someone in the know, Chris! We should mention that you have led the Computer Science Teachers' Association for many years. Hats off to you on launching another great week about CS!

  3. Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    As highlighted in a recent Change the Equation (CTEq) blog (, computer science is making a comeback which may be attributed to the coolness factor of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and for more practical matters, high-paying jobs. It’s important we have strong STEM programs in our schools, and we need to focus efforts on girls and students of color who are underrepresented in STEM fields to help them see themselves in a fast growing STEM career.

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Thanks for highlighting this upward trend, Rob. This is definitely the right direction, but most would agree that we have a very long way to go. The new Computer Science Curriculum Standards have the potential to stimulate this trend and expose more students to the power of computational thinking in high school. I believe that exposure will inspire more students to major in computer science fields. Thanks for your good work at Change the Equation !

  4. Robert Allison Robert Allison
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I agree that Computer Science is a very important topic for kids to learn in school - my degree is in Computer Science, and having the opportunity to learn to program a Radio Shack TRS-80 in high school (back in the day) played a big part in pointing me in that direction :-)

    But you don't have to listen to me ... there's also data to back up the importance of Computer Science careers! For example, this study recently published by the "Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce" shows that computer science majors make lots of money, and have low unemployment!

    And I used SAS/Graph to plot the data, making it easy to compare the different majors at-a-glance (note that "Mathematics and Computer Science" is 6th from the top!)

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Wow, Robert! That was fast! For visual folks like me, your map really helps. It's amazing how many different ways we can view the same data...and even more amazing how many different conclusions we can draw, depending on how the information is presented. But I would expect nothing less from a talented computer scientist like you. Thanks so much for helping us consider this data from a variety of perspectives.

  5. Scott McQuiggan Scott McQuiggan
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Great post Caroline! It sounds like changes are occurring that will help motivate students to explore Computer Science, and STEM in general, to fill the skills gap across the country.

    Computer Science education used to, and in many cases still does, concentrate heavily on the syntax and semantics of particular programming languages. This focus often hinders students’ interest and engagement in the application of computer science. The new Computer Science Education Standards published by the CSTA are a tremendous step in repositioning computer science education as learning tools that link workforce-necessary skills such as computational thinking and problem-solving with real-world interdisciplinary innovation and creativity. Establishing these skills (i.e., computational thinking, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving) in the early grades creates a strong foundation on which students can learn and use computer science tools (i.e., programming) effectively. This is crucial as the tools, programming languages, and resources are constantly evolving.

    This shift in focus and early establishment of skills also opens students to see, what I believe to be, the most attractive aspect of computer science earlier in education. I believe the most appealing aspect of computer science is its interdisciplinary application. This is the fact I love sharing the most when I speak with students. Computer Science can be applied in any domain from psychology and language arts to astrophysics and advanced analytics. The result is the application of computer science in whatever interests a student. My hope is that through early introduction students will be able to explore their interests through Computer Science applications. I believe this increases engagement that leads to diverse, increased enrollments in computer science programs around the country.

    Today, one of the best things we can offer computer science education is to teach students to think of programming as a hammer. Likewise, all computer science resources can be thought of as helpful tools that link workforce-required skills with innovation, creativity and products that change the world.

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Hmmm...I think you've hit the nail on the head, Scott :-) The new Computer Science Curriculum Standards really emphasize the *application* of skills and the use of computational thinking to solve problems. I agree that this is a huge step towards getting more students hooked on the real possibilities offered by computer science. Exciting progress in the right direction, for sure!

  6. Peter Kim
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Computer science application is virtually everywhere, and it's only going to advance and expand. To stay competitive in new technology and sustain a healthy economy, educators and programs need to engage students in STEM. Industries within STEM are some the fastest growing, but the availability of graduates within STEM is limited or lacking. Roughly 19 out of every 100 students graduate with a STEM degree. Here's more on that matter: S.T.E.M. Shortage

    • Caroline McCullen Caroline McCullen
      Posted December 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      I hope you will get some new visitors to see this descriptive graphic, Peter. It is new to me, and I think it does an excellent job of laying out the issues. Thanks so much for sending it our way!

  7. Julie Oster
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I know I'm a little late to post but I wanted to comment as the coordinator of a high school IT program. It is unfortunate that it is taking so long for computer science to make it's way in to traditional schools. I agree with Chris' point that not everyone needs to be a computer scientist, but they do need to understand the fundamentals. I think there are several ways that CS can become more mainstream. First, allow students to use it for foreign language requirements. Other options would be to include it in the math or science department to meet those requirements. As long as it's an elective, it will only attract those interested in programming. If we can make some of these changes, the problem becomes finding the teachers or training the teachers. Many who can teach it can make much more money working in industry. There are teachers who are willing to learn more but the time, cost, and lack of support make it hard for many teachers. SAS does a great job in providing curriculum, training and more!

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