Computing, Computational Thinking and Computer Science have become essential to many fields, but this fact has not been communicated clearly to the public. In particular, K-12 students and teachers are largely unaware of the current ubiquity of computing and the revolution that computing has had on different areas of science. There are two ways this is apparent – the dramatic decline in the students directly entering computing related majors and, equally important, the limited integration of computing into existing curricula.
Traditional STEM classes have limited exposure to computing tasks such as data organization, transforming data or even limited programming. To a good approximation, only students whose family background conditions them to be interested in computing, or those with a hobby interest in gaming, take computing classes as currently offered. Gender stereotyping overlies this basic situation, and makes it even less likely that young women will take computing in school. This is particularly troubling for fields important to our nation, such as biology and chemistry where women have a high proportion of representation.
We have developed an approach to this problem that we feel has great promise. Rather than seeking to draw students into computing courses in school, we plan to bring computing into the courses that students are already taking. Because computing has become so important in so many fields, importing a meaningful exposure to computing into students’ studies in other fields can be done without compromising existing learning goals. For example, biology students can learn about the role of computing in sequencing genetic materials in a way that enhances, not diminishes, their grasp of the biology.
In some of our partner schools, a program of electives offers another way to bring computing to students through their developing interests in other fields. An elective course not in “computer science” but in “computational biology” or “simulations and animations in physics” can foster an appreciation of the intellectual value of computing to fields in which students’ interests are already forming, and which they see as linked to their plans for college.
Increasingly, “Computer Science” is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses researchers with backgrounds in biology, physics, psychology, applied math and other disciplines; combined, they form the core for the development of the “cyberinfrastructure” that has contributed to the advancement of many fields. Computer science graduates must learn to articulate their contribution to science and appreciate their role in that process. The GK-12 program is ideally situated to address this problem, by training a cadre of computer scientists who have learned how to communicate about what they do to intelligent students and teachers who are not “insiders” in their field. Against this background, the goals of our project are:
- To train future researchers in Computer Science who are able to communicate effectively with the public about their work, and who understand the connections between their work and other disciplines.
- To inform K-12 students about the value of computing in fields they see as important to their further education.
- To prepare teachers in other disciplines to communicate to their students the connections between computing and their fields of instruction.
- To develop and distribute materials that can be used to replicate our program in other settings.