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Computer Scientists Reach Beyond Their Ranks to Shape the Future

computer science event 4 360x240Ken Kretsch worries when he hears people say that computer science is only for math whizzes.

That notion is unfortunately held by many educators, including guidance counselors who advise students, said Kretsch, who teaches computer courses at Middletown High School South in Middletown, N.J.

“It reduces the talent pool of people going into the field,” Kretsch said.

Kretsch is not alone in his concerns. His K-12 colleagues across the country say their field faces challenges as it seeks to grow beyond technology education and programming into a recognized academic discipline - one that not only trains the next generation of innovative computer scientists, but also reaches out effectively to students across academic disciplines.

At Rutgers, the computer science department has stepped forward to help meet those challenges. The department, in the School of Arts and Sciences, is providing outreach and training to teachers at the K-12 level while also working on ways to draw high school students as well as Rutgers undergraduates from other disciplines to computer science courses.

The department is holding a workshop Aug. 19 and 20 for high school and middle school teachers from across the region. A workshop last year, in which Kretch attended, was very well-received and led to the creation of a Central Jersey chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA).

The workshop, sponsored by Google, provided innovative new approaches to classroom computer instruction; information on the latest programs and apps; and updates on nationwide efforts to establish higher standards in computer science education.


“The whole idea is for teachers to come here to Rutgers and get energized,” said Fran Trees, the director of undergraduate introductory instruction in the department, and a principal organizer of the event. “The goal is for them to leave with pedagogical techniques that they didn’t have when they came.”

Lars Sorensen, who along with Trees helped organize the workshop, said the event fosters valuable connections between Rutgers and local communities.

“We want teachers to think of Rutgers as a hub for computer science, and as a source of support,” said Sorensen, head of student computing for the university’s Laboratory of Computer Science Research. “Most computer science teachers are on an island, and they don’t have other people to talk to about their problems.

“Events like this get everybody together, working, talking about common goals, common problems, and solutions to those problems.”

Two of the key challenges facing K-12 computer science education nationwide is a lack of uniform standards governing course content and a lack of national certification requirements for those teaching computer science.

“Current federal, state, and local government policies underpinning the K-12 education system are deeply confused, conflicted, or inadequate to teach engaging computer science as an academic subject,” said the nationwide study, Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age.

The study, conducted by the CSTA and the Association for Computing Machinery, also noted a decline in the number of introductory and advanced placement computer science courses taught in secondary schools as well as a

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growing gender and racial gap among students taking advanced placement computer science courses.

Trees, who has held leadership positions in the CSTA, has long been active on computer science education issues. At Rutgers, she focuses on course development for non-majors, and also serves on an outreach committee that helped secure the Google grant for the workshop.

She supports other forms of outreach, such as sending Rutgers computer science students to talk to high school students and educate them about computer science.

“We are trying to give them the reality that computer science is a part of everything they take an interest in, whether it’s sports, medicine or business,” she said. “It’s not sitting in a cubicle all day long.”

During last year's workshop, teachers absorbed a broad array of material - from new programming technologies like App Inventor and Scratch, to emerging movements like “flipping the classroom” – in which students watch or read lecture content before coming to class and then do ‘homework’ in the classroom.

Eugenia Etkina, the noted physics education scholar in the Graduate School of Education, opened the conference with a presentation on developing the ideal classroom environment for teaching science. She said students should feel free to make mistakes.

“That will create a science- like environment,” Etkina said. “If scientists are afraid to be wrong, then science will never get done.”

Teachers attending the conference said it was effective in showing them fun new ways to reach students.

“Part of the problem is that students are not aware of how much fun it could be to have a career in computer science,” said Lynne Kesselman, a teacher in Egg Harbor Township. “I think they think of it as a solitary, sit-behind-the-desk, geeky kind of thing, and it is really much more collaborative and exciting process than that perception suggests.”



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