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Current Situation

At this point, few if any schools have implemented an early computer science curriculum. Most computer science programs in elementary and even middle schools consist of a combination of applications training and educational software use. While these tools definitely have their place in the classroom, they neglect the full power of having computers available in schools. For instance, while many middle school teachers have embraced WebQuests, web site design, and other Internet-based activities (Soloway et al 20), students only can make glorified essays on the web with no programming or scripting background.

Although there may be very few primary schools teaching programming and computer science, evidence indicates that students at these levels are ready to learn this material. For instance, the American Computer Science League (ACSL) junior-division contests include both high school and middle school students, who solve algorithmic and conceptual problems during a year-long series of contests. In fact, in the 2007 intermediate-division "All-Star" contest, a middle school team took the second place award. Computer science is also starting to appeal to students interested in longer-term research; middle school science fairs nationwide are creating computer science categories in which students are judged on their explorations into algorithms and software development. Other success stories show how computer science has effectively supplemented usual course material in the elementary and middle school classroom.

Even though students are enthusiastic about writing programs and there are proven benefits to studying computer science in elementary and middle school, teachers are reluctant to change their lesson plans to include this material for any number of reasons. For instance, teachers who themselves have not approached programming may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of having to learn programming solidly enough to teach it. This misconception that basic programming is completely unapproachable is magnified by a related misconception that computer science consists of a huge amount of disjoint information that is understandable only by technical experts (as an example, see the diagram on the right, which was taken as a "conceptual map for the computer science discipline" from a serious paper on how to teach introductory programming). Other teachers simply may not view computer science as a core curricular area that should be covered in any significant way until trade school or college. Regardless of what is causing this hole in basic computing and problem-solving curriculum, students are missing out on valuable knowledge that they are approaching until high school or college.

Fortunately, states and public organizations are starting to help encourage early study of computer science. Some organizations have released standards codifying the skills students should have at each grade level in order to approach college-level programming and computer science courses. Still, very few school systems have adopted and/or enforced the standards; for instance, the 1993 ACM curriculum for computer science was "not widely implemented in secondary schools" (Tucker et al 5).

Additionally, government officials and lobbyists at all levels are starting to become concerned with early technology education. For instance, in response to a decline in enrollment in these fields, the Business and Higher Education Forum sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Frist to summarize the current situation:

  "Our nation’s future economic prosperity will depend in large measure on our ability to better educate and attract more of our best and brightest students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The United States cannot remain at the forefront of a global high-technology economy with a workforce that is less well trained in science and mathematics than those of other countries. While most science fields have shown little growth or actually declined in enrollment and degrees awarded over the past 10 years, many of America's international counterparts have substantially increased the number of students they have prepared for STEM careers. According to the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), only 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States in 2000 were in science and engineering fields. This compared to an average of 27 percent for other OECD countries and a staggering 52 percent in China. Our members are deeply concerned about high dropout rates in STEM majors. Some studies show that only 4 in 10 students who plan to major in a STEM field actually graduate with a STEM degree. For minority students, the outcomes are much worse – only 1 in 4 will graduate with a STEM degree."

Concern like that raised by the Business and Higher Education Forum may help raise the public attention about computer science and technology education needed to catalyze serious curriculum changes.

Early Acquisition of Computer Science · ©2008 Justin Solomon and Peter Rusev