New Advanced Placement Computer Science Course Surveys Principles.

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On 24 February 2011 Owen Astrachan of Duke University announced to the AP Computer Science Teachers Electronic Discussion Group [EDG] that: “We have been working on a proposed new AP course, the CS Principles course, for about two years. You can find information about the course at, including detailed learning objectives and student practices and material related to what the curricular framework for the proposed course will be. This is an alternative the existing AP course, not a replacement for it. There are details accessible via the website. This past year five colleges have piloted the course and in the Academic

Year 2011-2012 we will expand the pilot to phase II, including at least 10 high schools and 10 colleges, partnered where possible.” I think that the proposed AP Principles course represents a truly exciting, most worthwhile development and will do much to popularize Computer Science. It should be embraced and supported by everyone on this list. Make no mistake, I personally, strongly believe that we need to give students the greater depth and abstraction that comes with studying a programming language. A survey course will never substitute for that. AP CS-AB and especially Higher Level IB (International Baccalaureate) Computer Science is precisely the sort of course that we want high school students to graduate with for a very important reason – these courses inculcate skills and discipline to think abstractly and broadly in ways that a survey course will never achieve. Those who would demonize courses of process and rigor as just syntax are not characterizing or representing fairly the ability that students achieve in transferring these learned skills of abstraction to other knowledge domains. Computer programming does contain syntax just as human languages contains grammar, but to suggest that the AP case study or IB dossier program is syntax is akin to suggesting that MacBeth or King Lear is a lesson in participles. However, just because we highly value an understanding of calculus and quantum mechanics does not mean that we out to denigrate knowledge of foreign affairs or debate concerning the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These are all part of the educational landscape with which we want our students to gain comfort and expertise. It is not an either/or proposition. Students must be more than an idiot-savant. So often computer programming books have an early chapter on the history and social significance of computer science, and that is the last we hear of it. Some texts even stick a few pages of social relevancy at the end of each chapter. I personally skipped this material because it was torn from a more meaningful tapestry of real world context. The principles and applications of a discipline give meaningfulness to the discipline beyond an academic exercise. It gives students reasons and justification for spending the extraordinary time that it takes to master a discipline. I am not sure where this new course belongs. It may indeed be an appropriate CS0 course to introduce grade 9/10 students to the discipline, and given the broad attention that it is receiving, I suspect that it will be qualitatively attractive. With a solid survey CS0 course, schools may indeed capture large numbers in grade 10. It will then be up to teachers to sell these captive audiences on the merits of achieving an academically rigorous treatment in computer programming which is, after all, the language and process of machine intelligence. Computer Science without programming is like Physics without mathematics. We want to draw our students into the challenge and exuberance of algorithms and project development as completely as possible. It is not enough to know ABOUT Shakespeare. It is important to understand the English language to appropriately appreciate the prose and poetry of the language. It is not enough to know about the ENIAC and Big Blue and Watson. It is important to understand how they do they do so that we can transfer our understanding and appreciation and judgement beyond games of Chess and Jeopardy. This new course of CS0 is exciting precisely because it may well be the gateway to CS1 and CS2 courses of algorithmic development and data structures. It is not about choosing one over the other, but rather asking where the new course best fits to support the survival and growth of the others. This is something that IB Computer Science has done along by the way … that is, required a significant coverage of nonprogramming topics of Computer Science. I think that we should call a spade a spade. Students must be encouraged to value learning for the sake of learning and to welcome rather than disdain academic rigor. Engineering and programming must become more valued than football and track and hip hop. The currency of this value is TIME. It takes as much time to learn to program well enough in Java to create a meaningful and useful application as it does to learn a gridiron playbook. Students only have so much time in their lives. That currency of experience and competency, the currency of time, is something that can be spent bashing heads on a school playground or it can be spent grappling with algorithms and databases and patterns of thought. How are your students spending their time after school and on the weekends? Is football or hockey or basketball as important as internalizing algorithms and calculus and quantum mechanics and logical positivism and reductionism? A survey course of the principles of computer science may well be an opportunity to ask students to use their heads for something beyond debilitating concussion bashing tackles on the gridiron. Gerry Donaldson, Instructor & Consultant Department of Computer Science University of Calgary


About the Author:

Gerry Donaldson was Calgary’s first high school teacher to use a lab of personal computers. Gerry taught CSE, including CTS, AP and IB Computer Science, for 30 years before teaching and consulting to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary.
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