Lessons learned from PIxEL, and how computer science education needs to change
This year I started a non-profit organization of after-school high school clubs called PIxEL (programmers + innovators * entrepreneurs + leaders) with the goal of engaging students in the disciplines of design, code, and business. What I also wanted to do was expose computer science to as many students as possible in a positive way. Of course, this is not an original idea. Even the President has acknowledged that the increasing demand for work in the computer science industry must be met with a movement to integrate that into primary education.
However, I don’t think we’re doing this correctly. I am currently taking an AP Computer Science course at my school, and the class size is less than half of any other elective. The introductory course, on the other hand, seems to be one of the most widely opted classes taken by freshmen. What is the reason for this disparity?
“…students need to see what they are doing to remain interested, especially from a technical standpoint…”
Firstly, I think courses like these focus too much on the principles of computer programming before the students even understand how this could ever be used. Side projects (“labs”) written by the College Board are insufficient; students need to see what they are doing to remain interested, especially from a technical standpoint. The choice of Java for this course is understandable; its syntax is relatively simple while exposing some of the key concepts of extensibility and polymorphism. But is it still relevant?
“If that sounds too idealist to you, just remember how technology has always been built on idealism…”
To this end, I believe that at this point in time there is a larger zeal for computer science education than has been at any other point in history. We need to make a positive impact on the students we teach this to. For that to happen, I think that a hands-on approach is the best way to accomplish this; no textbook or lecture can substitute for personal exploration and accomplishment. Remember the time when you first learned this beautiful thing we call programming – the sheer joy of making the computer do something. If we want to bring more people into the field like we advertise that we do, we have to pass this on in a way that shows people how programming inspires people to creation.
For the next generation, technology will be an integral part of most careers, and this demands skills that we must teach to today’s students.
That’s a pretty big responsibility. Let’s not screw it up.
For more information about PIxEL and what we do: email me – ethan at pixelclubs dot org.