A+ Advice for Parents

Introducing Kids to Computer Science Outside the Classroom

Q: I'm urging my son's high school to offer programming classes. Our state adopted the Common Core Standards and I thought that guidelines for teaching computer science would be among them ... not! If we want to prepare our children for the future, shouldn't we teach them programming languages?

A: Hank Pellissier, managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, agrees. "Computer programming ... may be the most important second language your child will ever learn. According to a growing number of experts, learning computer science will not only pave the way for future employment prospects -- job growth in this sector is booming -- but contribute to the U.S. economic recovery as well," blogs Pellissier at greatschools.org.

The Common Core Standards outline what K-12 students should learn in language arts and mathematics (www.corestandards.org). While the mathematics standards include skills essential to learn programming, they do not include programming itself. Few states include computer science as a core academic subject for graduation. Computer science teacher preparation and certification varies widely.

Yet more and more parents and educators agree with a recent report from the Computer Science Teachers Association, "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," which states: "The current state of computer science education is unacceptable at a time when computing is driving job growth and new scientific discovery."

Here's how you can work with your school to develop computer science courses. Check out the CSTA's comprehensive standards for K-12 computer science classes that provide a three-level framework. The first level, aimed at grades K-6, addresses computer science in the context of other academic subjects. In Level 2, grades 6-9, the concepts are taught either through other subjects or in discrete computer science courses.

Level 3 is divided into three separate courses: "Computer Science in the Modern World" offers content the CSTA believes should be mastered by all students. "Computer Science Principles" and "Topics in Computer Science" are intended for students with special interests in computer science and other computing careers (csta.acm.org).

If your school can't move fast enough, there are online courses your son could enroll in. Check out the free offerings at www.khanacademy.org. Look at area colleges, too. Many offer motivated high school students the opportunity to take courses on campus or online for credit.

Many companies have programs to mentor high school students and sustain interest in computer science and engineering, says Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. She says all sectors -- health care, transportation, manufacturing -- not just the high-tech companies, have been seeking more and more expertise in computing.

Jedd Haberstro, a computer science major at Rochester Institute of Technology and an intern at Apple Inc., says that teacher training is a critical factor in keeping high school students' interest. He agrees that "having a deeper understanding of how computers work and how to control them to do what we want is essential as the world becomes more dependent on technology.

"Everyone headed into the workforce needs a general computing foundation to function in today's world. But does everyone need to know how to program? Maybe not. That's the software engineer's job -- to make the software reliable and easy to use."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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