UA Working to Emphasize K-12 Computer Science Instruction

Isolation, a lack of resources and inconsistencies in computer science certification across the U.S. plague teachers and have resulted in a shortage of professionals and people with diverse backgrounds entering the field.
May 5, 2010
Suzanne Westbrook, the associate head of the UA department of computer science, studies gender issues in computing education.
Suzanne Westbrook, the associate head of the UA department of computer science, studies gender issues in computing education.

Fewer than 65 percent of K-12 schools across the nation offer an introductory-level computer science course, yet a fundamental understanding of computing technology has become essential in most day-to-day interactions. 

From using an automatic teller machine to sending an e-mail, our lives have become inextricably linked with computing technology – yet the ability to use a computer, its software or using computational thinking to solve problems are not core K-12 subjects taught under state guidelines by certified teachers.

The integration of computer science into the K-12 curriculum in the U.S. has not kept pace with other countries, and a serious shortage of information technologists exists at all levels, according to a new study by computer science professionals including the University of Arizona's Suzanne Westbrook.

The overall shortage of women and underrepresented minority students in computing and the increasing need for professionals in the field motivated Westbook and leaders from the Computer Science Teachers Association, or CSTA, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, or ABI, to investigate barriers to the profession and make recommendations for improvement.

Westbook, associate head of the UA department of computer science, studies gender issues in computing education, and she is a member of the Education, Outreach and Training team of the National Science Foundation funded iPlant Collaborative project.

The group met in October 2009 with K-12, college and university educators and representatives from nonprofits and industry from throughout the country. The study points to the deepening equity crisis in computer science education and calls for a major engagement by all stakeholders.

Westbrook said that across the nation, computer science teachers suffer from isolation, a lack of resources and access to cross-sector partnerships to increase capacity and knowledge, as well as inconsistencies as each state has different or no computer science certification requirements.

The group also found that courses in the fundamentals of computer science often count as general electives in high school and not as college-preparatory electives. Schools also often blur the lines between information technology literacy – the ability to use technology to support learning – with the ability to use computational thinking skills to help problem-solve across disciplines.    

"The ability to use information technology," Westbrook said, "helps people to understand security issues in using social networking sites and how to operate a computer and use its software, but computational thinking teaches students methods that can be applied to solve problems in any field of study, from astronomy to the visual arts."

The report recommends addressing the lack of women and underrepresented minorities through proactive efforts including the mentoring of students to build self-confidence and the encouragement within schools for girls and minority students to take rigorous computer science courses when offered.

On a broader level, the group recommends engaging industry representatives and K-12 teachers to provide an accurate and up-to-date picture of the computational thinking skills that students need to engage successfully in the workforce.

"This report is a clarion call to all of the stakeholders who think these problems are solved," said Chris Stephenson, executive director of CSTA and co-author of the report. "It provides practical, achievable suggestions for working together to ensure that all students have the opportunities that rigorous computing provides."

Westbrook said the UA's new School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts, known as SISTA, was designed to affect change at the university level and to better prepare students to use computation skills in the workforce and to compete on a global level.

SISTA provides an interdisciplinary curriculum based on computing across disciplines, and Westbrook is the associate head of the school housed at the UA College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. A bachelor of arts in information science and arts and a bachelor of science in information science and technology were approved this spring and will enroll students starting in fall.

"Knowledge of computing provides problem-solving and critical thinking skills to all students, regardless of their eventual career path," she added. "I don't think that all students should know how to program, but they should understand the power of computing and how computers can help solve problems in a variety of fields."