Computer Science Pathway Construction!

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This blog was revised on September 1, 2009 to recognize that a University Pathway may terminate with either a programming language focus in Computer Science 31 or a broader, eclectic focus in Computer Science 33.

The classic debate in the creation of every curriculum is whether to go broad or go deep. The new Alberta Education CTS curriculum has enough scope and depth go either route. Before the demise of Advanced Placement’s (AP) higher level Computer Science course, AP went narrow and deep with programming language. The more rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) Computer Science syllabus is deep with programming language but also broad with a potpourri of non-programming topics. I have taught both syllabi.

After 25 years of teaching secondary Computer Science, 13 years of which I taught both AP and IB Computer Science, I would rather go deep and bring student thought to levels of abstraction that may be transferred to other disciplines and aspects of their lives. High school timetables do not typically provide sufficient time to go deep into many knowledge domains of a discipline. Students see roses but don’t have time to take make scents of their experiences. (Pun intended.)

Notwithstanding my personal preferences expressed in the above paragraph, there is ample research in the United States showing that students leaving high school often incorrectly equate a career in Computer Science with computer language programming. The new Alberta Education CTS curriculum offers schools ample courses to delve into a broad cross section of nonprogramming topics in Computer Science. Schools are well advised to consider the needs of their student population. The above blog, “30 Aug 2009 – Integrating Four Computer Science Pathways”, illustrates how a University Pathway may be satisfied with either a computer language focus (Computer Science 101-201-202-31) or broader eclectic focus (Computer Science 101-201-202-33).

One posits that broad exposure to the possibilities of a discipline gives students an appreciation of many careers branching from that discipline, but superficial exposure leaves students with superficial impressions. Superficial experience is better than no experience, but deep

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experience leads to excellence, excellence to pride, pride to ambition, ambition to career fulfillment. A Jack-Of-All-Trades and Master-Of-None is a pathway to mediocrity.

I have to date floated two pathways to colleagues, one in late June and another in late August. Feedback to revealed stubborn facts that my earlier pathways didn’t take into account. Reflection and the exercise of writing this blog prompted me to rethink the entire process. I learned a great deal in my career and haven’t yet had time to forget it all. Some principles emerge.

  1. The grade 10 course should be a half course offering 3-credits. It is an inspired policy in many (most?) Alberta high schools that grade 10 students are encouraged to sample a variety of CTS “complementary” courses. I have observed that students entering grade 10 “typically” are far less mature than students entering grade 11. Computer Science, not unlike the sciences of Biology, Physics and Chemistry, is a demanding academic discipline.

  2. The grade 10 course should be a fun course. This is a great opportunity to hook students with some exciting, fun learning environments. Alice and Scratch and Lego MindStorms were designed to excite students while delivering conceptually meaningful experiences. The halo effect of a positive first exposure can last an entire lifetime. This is the way to properly introduce students to Computer Science.

  3. Exceptionally mature grade 10 students should be allowed to move immediately to a grade 11 academic pathway. I always had several such students each year. I worked with amazingly sensitive, intelligent, well-informed counsellors. Our school had its “rules”, but we didn’t hesitate to invoke the most important rule. The best interests of the student comes first.

  4. There should be a strong, academic pathway in grades 11 and 12. Post-secondary institutions throughout Alberta are moving rapidly this year to place Computer Science on par with Physics, Biology and Chemistry for university entrance. This is a fait accomplait at the University of Alberta. We anticipate that the University of Calgary will implement a similar policy very soon. AP and IB Computer Science curricula gave students powerful paradigms and life-changing experiences that compare favourably with traditional secondary science

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    curricula. in September, 2009, Alberta Education rolls out one of the most ambitious secondary Computer Science curricula in the world. Alberta’s students deserve no less in their classrooms. Years of experience with AP and IB Computer Science curricula informs us well as to what a successful academic secondary Computer Science curriculum looks like. The Alberta Education CTS Computer Science curriculum supports the best that we can ask.

  5. There should be a less time-demanding pathway in grades 11 and 12. Some students will opt to take the other three sciences, or will focus their time on music or athletics or a trade. Such students will benefit from a yearly 3-credit Computer Science course. These students will not use their Computer Science for post-secondary entrance.

  6. A pathway should follow the sequence of an excellent textbook. Electronic media will compete for this distinction in the future. I have been intimately involved with curricula development locally, provincially and internationally for three decades. I will tell you a secret. The best curriculum sequence flows from a textbook. This is because the sequence of an excellent textbook has been honed and modified and updated over years from student and educator feedback. With a sequentially dependent subject such as computer programming, it is essential that prerequisite concepts and facts and techniques be covered in a pedagogically meaningful sequence. A good textbook is the backbone of a well planned course. It allows the teacher to fly off in all directions, grabbing all manner of supplementary resources.

  7. The pace of learning should be challenging but comfortable. This is where the rubber hits the road. Only by trial and error does a teacher discover that magic pace which is challenging enough to retain a student’s interest but slow enough to leave time to cope with performance frustrations when, invariably, things do not to according to plan. There is a healthy, constructive tension between challenge and frustration, between excitement and boredom. This is where experience comes in. An ideal pace depends upon some magic chemistry of interaction between the ability and enthusiasm and work ethic of the student combined with the quality and accessibility of resources combined with the expertise and experience and enthusiasm of the teacher.

  8. Multiple pathways should overlap to minimize the multiplicity of preparations being simultaneously implemented. We decry speaking on a cell phone while driving. Yet it is customary to timetable multiple, different CTS courses against a single teacher into the same time slot. This crippling of teacher performance leads to student frustration and malaise as students spin their wheels while their teacher addresses the needs of other students taking other courses. This damage can be mitigated by creating different pathways that sufficiently overlap such to minimize the number of different preparations being simultaneously implemented.

  9. A pathway should maximize hands-on implementation of abstract concepts and processes. We must remember that (almost) all science includes lab work – a lot of lab work. Programming is the laboratory of Computer Science. This is where design may be tested, where we pit the abstractions of theory against the crucible of empirical reality. Regardless of how elegant the blueprint, the algorithm must “fly” in some sort of OS to gain confidence and respectability. Programming is where we see the “science” of Computer Science in full flight.

  10. A pathway should incorporate and terminate with a comprehensive, demanding project. The IB Dossier Project is one of the most demanding secondary school assignments in the world. Time and again alumni students have told me that it was the single most worthwhile experience of their high school career. It is a large, time-consuming, resource demanding project where students generate a gestalt of their experience. It is here that they discover the challenge and reward of integrating all that they have learned. The planning, implementation, integration, testing, documentation and publication of a worthy project is something that a student will remember and cherish the rest of their lives. It is a rare opportunity in our current twittering, texting, shoot first – ask questions later 21st century culture. A “worthy project” is a project that the student has personally chosen.


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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