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In 1976, computer science professors from the University of Oregon bemoaned the state of computer science in secondary education. Specifically, although almost all states had high percentages of schools that have instructional computing facilities, the majority of students were not using these facilities in any significant way. In addition, they found that most schools "have no staff with a good working knowledge of computers (say the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in the field)" (Moursund). The professors also emphasized the lack of appropriate lower level textbooks for teaching computer science. More than 30 years later, their findings are still very relevant and topical. The lack of progress during this time is alarming, and might be a contributing factor to the decreasing number of college computer science majors.

It was perhaps in response to University of Oregon article and others like it that the 80s and early 90s showed a huge flurry of research activity into early acquisition of computer science. Most of the research material for this project comes from those papers. Unfortunately, due perhaps to the development of more advanced teaching applications that do not involve programming and teachers' general hesitance to adopt the rigorous study of computer science into their lesson plans, it appears that research in this area has significantly diminished in the last decade, as indicated by a rapid decline of papers published on the subject in the last 15 years. For this reason, discussion of the history of studies into the early acquisition of computer science is mostly limited to activity that occurred in the 80s and early 90s.

The Logo programming language was the tool used to conduct the first serious explorations of computer science acquisition in primary and secondary schools. Logo was created by Seymour Papert and Wally Feurzig in 1967. The language was designed to teach programming concepts and to enhance critical thinking skills. The original idea was Logo could be used to teach students both mathematical and programming concepts concurrently. It was quickly discovered, however, that Logo could be used in conjunction with work in subject areas outside mathematics. Thus, Logo became the general "language for learning" for early computer programming curricula. Logo's main strength lied in its simple and intuitive syntax and interface, which appealed to younger computer users. In the 80s and early 90s, a number of education and computer science labs carried out research relating to Logo's capabilities as a teaching tool. For the most part, this research involved teaching Logo to young children and educating secondary school teachers to teach Logo. The results were conclusively positive, with numerous success stories and positive study results. Despite this encouraging fact, Logo did not catch on as language to teach computer science at secondary schools, at least not in terms of a nationwide effort. In addition, very few alternative environments and programming languages for the same task were developed. The ones that were developed (like ToonTalk for example) never reached Logo's limited use and popularity.

The only other language to garner popularity for teaching computer science to young children was BASIC, which stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Designed in 1963 (4 years before Logo) by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College, like Logo, the goal of BASIC was for non-computer science students to learn programming concepts.

There still are projects that focus on BASIC and Logo as tools to teach rudimentary programming skills. For example, the BASIC-256 project focused on the design of "an easy to use version of BASIC designed to teach young children the basics of computer programming. It uses traditional control structures like gosub, for/next, and goto, which helps kids easily see how program flow-control works. It has a built-in graphics mode which lets them draw pictures on screen in minutes, and a set of detailed, easy-to-follow tutorials that introduce programming concepts through fun exercises" ("Basic-256 - Programming for kids;" see the screenshot on the left). Unfortunately, projects involving Logo, BASIC, or most other programming languages intended to teach computer science to younger students have received little attention by educators and administrators.

More recent efforts have resulted in programming languages with simpler interfaces and syntax. For instance, the Alice project created a fully-graphical interface for programming in which students simply drag and drop behaviors for characters in a scene (see the image on the right). While these applications certainly show promise in removing unnecessary difficulty from simple programming, none has gained much attention in classrooms outside teaching laboratories.

For more detailed information on the history of Logo and the current research, visit the MIT Logo Foundation website.

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