The 16 January 2009 issue of "Science" contains an interview with the new director of "Compute for America."
- Q: What makes Compute for America different from other computing education efforts?
- A: After 3 years, roughly 40% of the teachers of computer science [in U.S. schools] are gone...You can't sustain a profession if you have that kind of attrition. ... What Compute for America does is concentrate on that one part of the problem. ... At the moment, it's bringing through something like 40 to 50 new teachers a year. Our hope is to double that number in the next couple of years.
- Q: What can professional computer scientists do for school computing?
- A: Be interested. ... The biggest thing that's missing in secondary education ... is that teachers often are not inspired about mathematics. And what research computer scientists can do [is] tell them about the beauty, the power, and what's going on [in the field].
To be honest, all of the above is a carefully constructed lie. Everywhere above that you see a reference to "Compute/computing/computer scientists," swap it for "Math/mathematics/mathematicians." Then you have the actual interview with John Ewing (p. 317) who is taking over the five year old Math for America effort.
Isn't it striking how similar it is to the rhetoric and concerns about computing education today? Consider the Rebooting Computing manifesto (at http://www.rebootingcomputing.org/manifesto.html), "We are dismayed that K-12 students, especially girls, have such a negative perception of computing. We are alarmed by reports that the innovation rate in our field has been declining and that enrollments in our degree programs have dropped 50% since 2001....We believe we can, by working together in new ways, recover the magic and beauty of computer science."
There is a challenge in pushing more and better computing education -- students are a zero sum game. If they're not in your major, then pulling them into your major pulls them out of some other major. These quotes suggest that our problem may not be uniquely our problem. John Ewing seems to be facing the same kinds of problems as we in computing education are. Maybe we can gain more leverage on the problem by working with mathematics (and maybe science and engineering as well) to communicate the power and beauty of our field.
On the other hand, the fact that mathematics is complaining about the same problems as we are in computing suggests that our real problems are NOT the ones that we share with mathematics. There were 215,000 students who took the Calculus AB Advanced Placement exam last year. There were 11,000 students who took the Computer Science Level A Advanced Placement exam. The drop in interest in computing does not match a similar drop in interest in mathematics. We certainly need more and better computing educators, but that alone may not be enough to turn around declining enrollments in computing.