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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Help Reform Computer Science Education

Comments (30)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m Chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  In five years, NCWIT has become a prominent national organization helping encourage, inspire, advocate, and educate women (and girls) to get involved in computer science based on the following belief:

“We believe that inspiring more women to choose careers in IT isn’t about parity; it’s a compelling issue of innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability. In a global economy, gender diversity in IT means a larger and more competitive workforce; in a world dependent on innovation, it means the ability to design technology that is as broad and creative as the people it serves.”

One of the disheartening things I’ve learned in the past few years from my involved in NCWIT is the abysmal state of computer science in K-12 in the United States.  It’s just awful – I’ve looked at some of the curriculum, the AP test, and some of the courseware and it’s so bad it makes me want to crawl under my desk and curl up in a ball.  Here are a few scary facts for you:

  • More than 1.6 million students took Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 2009, but barely 1% of the AP exams taken were in computer science.
  • The portion of high schools offering rigorous computer science courses fell from 40% in 2005 to 27% in 2009.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that nearly one million information technology jobs will be added to our workforce by 2016, but U.S. universities will produce only half the computing graduates needed to fill the new jobs.

As one of its major initiatives, NCWIT is taking on reforming computer science education.  Help us out by making a tax deductable donation to NCWIT for our DC Campaign.  And help us spread the word – our friends at Google (great supporters of NCWIT) have sponsored an all expenses-paid trip to Australia to meet with the Google Wave team and have lunch in the Google Sydney office (ok – and three nights for two people) for anyone that forwards this message on.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bradley.young Bradley Young

    Brad,

    Here's the thing: I believe that poor computer science is merely a symptom of education in the U.S., generally. Our academic institutions are not structured to handle anything as dynamic, logical and artistic as computer programming. They are structured like big industrial companies, heavy on layers of management, hyperspecialization, and long planning cycles: it can take years to get a new textbook into classrooms.

    In the computer industry, books are outdated by the time they reach bookshelves.

    Additionally, it's tough to get teachers that are capable, since they can easily make twice as much in the private sector. And most of those people want to change jobs every 2-3 years (or less), so hunkering down to get a 30-year retirement and going to union meetings isn't going to be on the attractant list.

    Practically speaking, we need to radically flatten the organizational hierarchy in school districts, allow merit pay, and make it much easier to enter and leave the teaching profession. None of these are amenable to band-aid solutions.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      All true, but I think the opportunity to improve computer science education is independent of this.  There are some really great programs in the US that are largely a result of teachers taking the initiative and/or teachers having specialized computer science knowledge to start with.  This doesn’t solve the bigger education problem (which I agree needs a ton of help), but my approach is to go after things a piece at a time.

    • lucy sanders

      Reasons to focus on computer science education now: the current administration is more strongly focused on innovation and science/technology/engineering/math than has been true in a very long time; the computer science professional organizations are aligned for progress, and the National Science Foundation is active in this area as well. Positive signs, we need to really take advantage of this moment in time.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/alan_shimel2002 alan shimel

    Brad, just read Fred Wilson's post on computer science in middle school and that led me back here. My oldest son is going to middle school next year so we have been looking into this. Happy to report that down here in Boca Raton the public school system in making great progress in teaching computer science, even in middle school. Have done a full write up on this at my blog at http://www.ashimmy.com/2009/12/computer-science-i

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      That’s great that the schools in Boca are doing a good job of this – I’ll make sure my friends at NCWIT know about it.  It’s also great that the schools are named “Don Estridge” after the man who was the father of the IBM PC.  I was in Dallas at my parents house the day Delta Flt 191 crashed at DFW which Estridge was on.  I still remember sitting glued to the TV.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/teach-computer-programming Meryl van der Merwe

    As a teen (in the 80s) I took a class in Cobol at school, but went on to teach myself Applesoft Basic. I eventually worked as a programmer, despite the fact I did a degree in languages (the spoken variety). Now I have my own kids, and I have encouraged them to teach themselves to program – starting with Logo and progressing to the 'harder' languages. There are numerous resources available to make programming fun and accessible to kids and teens (eg Scratch and Alice). I am currently teaching a class in Alice, but most of the kids could have done it just as successfully at home. Parents and not just educators, need to realize the importance of introducing computer science to their children and then they need to help their kids find the appropriate language to learn.

  • http://www.doink.com Karen

    In talking to teachers, what I often hear is the lament that students see Computer Science as "boring" and "work." In part, this is because so much of what is taught is basic office applications like Word and PowerPoint. What is missing is the creative and entertaining element that technology can provide and students love. To appeal to Generation "C", the curriculum needs to embrace the three "C's" of "community, creation and collaboration." Web 2.0 applications like http://wwwdoink.com done right are what teachers need to engage students..to get them excited once again about Computer Science.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Absolutely correct.  And a quick look at Doink looks like it definitely is a good tool for this. 

  • http://www.charliecrystle.com charlie crystle

    I'm now on the school board in Lancaster, PA–11,000 kids, 80% growing up in poverty.

    What can we do? We have basic literacy issues to deal with. But there's one aspect of programming that I dig that I think a lot of kids would find compelling: the ability to create what they want.

    What if coding could lead to better literacy? The joy of discovery is a great motivator, especially when combined with the satisfaction of short-term incremental achievement. Programming gives that to us. From "hello world" to complex visualizations, there's one achievement after another. And to me that's more important than creating a tech economy, or tech-savvy students.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Great suggestion.  In addition, websites like Kerpoof (http://www.kerpoof.com) help a lot with this in a way that is very accessible to kids.

      • http://www.charliecrystle.com charlie crystle

        I'll give it a try, maybe get a test group going at a school or school-related nonprofit.

        • Lucy Sanders

          Kerpoof is great – the animation (movie making) interface really helps kids learn the basics of computing in an easy way. Plus, it's delivered via a web browser – no need to download software. NCWIT has been working for a while with Kerpoof and they are passionate about children and computing.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    My first language was about as painful as Cobol – it was APL!  I then learned basic on a timeshare of some sort quickly followed by Applesoft Basis.  When Logo appeared in the early 1980s that was a massive breakthrough.  Today, Alice and Scratch are great contemporary options.  Great comment at the end – I totally agree.

  • http://www.epilasyoncunuz.com/ epilasyon

    very good comment..

  • http://twitter.com/ajkandy @ajkandy

    Just to add, even at the high school level it can be split into a multidisciplinary track leading to careers that don't involve coding per se — usability, UI design, user experience design, product design, graphic design & typography — which are equally important in creating successful digital tools, products and services, and present a career track from a nominally "arts" background.

  • http://twitter.com/JeffRutherford @JeffRutherford

    Brad, great original post and lots of good info-discussion in the comments. I grew up in the late 70s-80s and learned Basic on a Radioshack color computer.

    I now have two young sons, and I'm interested in teaching them coding in a few years. I don't know if you're interested, but I'd appreciate a follow-up post listing online resources and computer languages for parents who want to teach their kids coding regardless of what their school is teaching.

    Finally, re: the several comments about interesting kids in programming, no one mentioned teaching them how to program videogames. Come on, the vast majority of kids are gamers these days – PC/Mac, Xbox, Wii, Playstation and now the iPhone. Teaching teenagers how to program games will/could lure a lot of them into computer science.

  • http://twitter.com/JeffRutherford @JeffRutherford

    Brad, great original post and lots of good info-discussion in the comments. I grew up in the late 70s-80s and learned Basic on a Radioshack color computer.

    I now have two young sons, and I'm interested in teaching them coding in a few years. I don't know if you're interested, but I'd appreciate a follow-up post listing online resources and computer languages for parents who want to teach their kids coding regardless of what their school is teaching.

    Finally, re: the several comments about interesting kids in programming, no one mentioned teaching them how to program videogames. Come on, the vast majority of kids are gamers these days – PC/Mac, Xbox, Wii, Playstation and now the iPhone. Teaching teenagers how to program games will/could lure a lot of them into computer science.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Your point on teaching kids how to program games is right on target.  Many of the new “early programming languages” are much more focused on this than teaching traditional programming.  I think it’s insane to introduce kids to programming by teaching them “Java” (or other languages) – give them higher order stuff that teaches computer science constructs but is fun.  The lessons from Logo still apply today, just more so.

  • Mike Boucher

    Here's an excerpt from an email that I sent to a former colleague at the SD School of Mines a while ago:

    /========
    This blogger concludes that the problem is not that there are too few women in computing, but that there are too many men:

    "I'm waiting to read the headline: 'Women too smart for careers with computers,'" says Laird, "where another researcher concludes that only 'boys' are stupid enough to go into a field that's globally-fungible, where entry-level salaries are declining, and it's common to think that staying up all night for a company-paid pizza is a good deal."

    Words to live by. Regrettably, I am living by them as one of the boys.
    ========

    You write: "gender diversity in IT means a larger and more competitive workforce." What do those words mean? "Competitive," for example, requires an object. Who competes, and against whom? One answer is that the participants in the workforce compete against each other, and any economist will tell you that the result of such competition is lower compensation in whatever terms you want to discuss (wages, benefits, etc.)

    Is there any evidence that great implementation of is what's missing in the world? If you want to support the idea that we need more girls to become programmers then that's the evidence that you need because programmers do implementation.

    I'm more inclined toward something else that you wrote: "in a world dependent on innovation, it means the ability to design technology that is as broad and creative as the people it serves." What's going to get you across the finish line that you describe there? The ability to manage and finance go-to-market on a compelling design? Yes. The ability to write a bunch of C++, Java, Flash, or any other implementation technology you'd care to name? No.

    Why would a smart woman enter comp sci? Pure programmers are never going to be my highest paid or most valuable people. By coincidence, it turns out that some of my most valuable people happen to have programming skills, but their value to me arises mostly from other characteristics.

    Women already have it hard enough – give 'em a break! Discourage them from entering comp sci and instead teach them valuable skills like evaluating, managing, designing, and financing technology.

    in my always-humble opinion, of course.

  • http://Legal-Citation.com Mike Boucher

    I send my son to http://www.internaldrive.com/ every summer. It has day programs and week-long programs in which they live in the dorms. I highly recommend it.

  • http://www.ncwit.org Lucy Sanders

    You are assuming that computer science is only programming and that's just not the case. Good computer science curricula should teach people how to look at real world problems and apply technology to the resolution of these problems. This involves observation, human/computer interface/interaction algorithms, system design/evaluation and much more. Saying computer science equals programming is like saying architecture equals hammering. Now, I can see why most folks think this because most CS introductory classes are programming classes – many CS educators feel this must change

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