Why there’s no such thing as an ‘F’ in computer science

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It’s not clear exactly why kids don’t pursue STEM fields in general, and shy away from computer science in droves.

They will give you myriad reasons, among them that the work just isn’t interesting, that the cool kids don’t do it, and fear – fear it’s too hard, fear they’ll be ridiculed as “nerds,” fear of being exposed as an intellectual fraud, or ironically, as the “too smart kid,” fear of failure.

Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.

Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.

Fear is an awful thing. It’s a four-letter “f” word that holds incredible power – power to keep us from doing what is good, what is right. Power to stop us from taking risks. Power to maintain the status quo, to stop disruption, to inhibit change. Power to stymie innovation, and to limit opportunity.

Fear is bad. Fear stands between us and a better world. It stands between us and our better selves.

But fear should not stand between our students and computer science.

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In reality, computer science is no different from any other academic discipline done well – it demands focus, study, practice, curiosity, and intellectual rigor.  It allows ample space for critical thinking and creativity.

Programming a robot to independently land on Mars and send home the results is theoretically no harder than writing a seminal work of literature, analyzing a gene sequence for medicine, or counseling an acutely at-risk teenager. In fact, one can argue, the cost of failure in computer science oftentimes is lower than it is in other fields.

But the immediate evidence of failure is likely much higher. A program runs, or it doesn’t. A network connects, or it doesn’t. There is no room for a fluffy paragraph to smooth things out if the main argument doesn’t quite follow logically. There is no room for a slightly fuzzy drawing of a cell seen through a microscope if one missed the mitochondria.

And perhaps, it’s this demand for logical clarity linked to immediate rejection of an incorrect approach that invites fear and doubt in students.  After all, no one likes to feel rejection, especially rejection that appears to be a direct reflection on your abilities.

Whatever their origins, these perceived challenges in studying computer science too often act as a disincentive for students, and increase the likelihood that only students with a strong natural aptitude will learn computer science if it’s not a core subject offered in their schools.

Even if students are fortunate enough to be in one of the less than 10 percent of U.S. high schools that offer computer science, they’re unlikely to elect to study computer science if they don’t have a strong background in math, if it only counts as an elective or has the potential to hurt their GPA, or if the teacher and the other kids in the class don’t look like them.

This is where educators and role models come in.

Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Teachers can take an unknown, scary subject and make it interesting and fun. They can help students develop confidence in their math, logic, and problem solving skills. They can foster collaboration and help students learn how to learn from each other. They can challenge students to try projects that seem a little out of reach. They can guide learning to make taking on challenges fun, and solving hard problems satisfying.

Role models are passionate about, and successful in, their field. They look like students, or come from similar backgrounds, or speak the same language.  They can show students how a school subject applies in the real world, bringing it to life.

This is especially critical in computer science, where the connections between creating technology and the potential impacts and uses of that technology in daily life often are missed. Computer science can be a tool to help people, to make a greener planet, to solve some of the world’s problems. Although not nearly enough, it’s done by men and women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors.

The best teachers are both educators and role models. They empower and inspire. They lead students down learning pathways that make the unknown into the familiar. They challenge students to work beyond what comes easily, and they quote Edison when frustrations are high: “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Technology is ubiquitous across industries, and drives the global economy.  It’s virtually impossible to go through a day without interacting with computer science – buying or selling products, using traffic lights, banking, using a smart device, texting emoticons – the list goes on.

Future economic growth and technology innovation requires people with strong computer science skills. Access to computer science education, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, is a defining 21st century social issue. Technology permeates our lives, and understanding computer science and coding is critical to being a contributing member of society.

Despite recent legislative nods in some states to the importance of CS as a core academic subject and the introduction of the Federal Computer Science Education Act, the U.S. education system continues to lag when it comes to computer science.  According to the College Board, fewer than 1 percent of AP exams taken in 2013 were in computer science. In 2010, the United States produced only 1,782 Ph.D.s in computing fields.

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More recent data is not yet available. Although CS enrollment in post-secondary schools is trending upward, gains are modest and the pipeline of graduates remains inadequate to meet projected demand for qualified workers.

Safra Catz, president and CFO of Oracle, noted recently that we could close the IT skills gap in the United States if we could get one girl in every U.S. high school to pursue a computer science degree. Surely we can do that.

It’s arguable that no matter the context, the root of fear is always the unknown. The unfortunate reality, though, is that opportunity and innovation also lurk in the unknown. Growth, change, and innovation can only come from having the courage to challenge the unknown, and make it known.

Don’t we owe it to our students to help them gain this courage through good computer science education?

Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology. Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.

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