Why Do Students Need Computer Science?

(I posted a similar entry on BPS Edtech’s communal site.)

Burlington (MA) Public Schools’ Superintendent Conti’s blog post last month on Computer Science for All outlined the state’s commitment to providing computer science in all schools.

But many people are still skeptical of the idea of teaching CS and coding principles to every student K-12.

So, why DO students need to learn computer science if they aren’t planning on going into STEM careers?

There are many reasons, but I like to think of it this way. Neither of my children are going to become professional chefs; should I therefore send them out into the world without knowing how to prepare a basic meal? Of course not! The ability to use a stove and make pancakes for dinner without contracting food poisoning or burning the house down is an essential life skill (because breakfast for dinner is the best meal ever!) Sure, they could eat cold cereal but shouldn’t we at least provide them with a skill set that allows them to have a choice?

Knowing how hardware, software, and services work together is the new pancakes for dinner, part of the basics that every student should have when they step out into the world. This is especially true as the IoT (Internet of Things) makes its way into everyday life in ways that we never expected. Your fridge and stove may very well be on speaking terms with each other in the near future.

Think of something you do every day – using your ID card to open the door to your school building. As you swipe your card across the reader, you are accessing a combination of hardware and software working together. When this action doesn’t unlock the door, what might have gone wrong? Without some basic understanding of the parts that go into this process, you won’t know where to start problem-solving. Is your card damaged or is the lock not operating properly? If the lock is not operating as expected, is it a physical defect in the device, the programming that recognizes your card as granting access, or has the communication system between central office and the device not worked to let the lock know you are a trusted individual. And that’s just a 1-5 second moment in your day that can go smoothly… or not. This is followed by a myriad of other interactions with computer science concepts that continue throughout your day.

We want our students to be able to use devices, software, and services safely, responsibly, productively, and with understanding, not matter what career path they choose. Most students don’t know what career they will have until after they have left BPS. This is why we make sure that every student has a well-rounded education that allows them to move on to a wide range of advanced studies. Increasingly, this means they need a solid grounding in computer science in addition to the traditional core subjects.

This year, I’m working with upper elementary teachers to demonstrate the advantages of integrating coding and robotics into their math and science curricula.  My goal is to create a sense of urgency and agency that allows classroom teachers to take the lead in adding these skills to their programs in future years.  At the same time, I’m looking at the opportunities to bring CS to to students in grades K-3 in developmentally appropriate ways to amplify learning across disciplines.

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