A Teaspoon of Computing in Every Subject: Broadening Computing Participation

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From May to November 2022, our seminars focus on the theme of transversal computing. Through this series of seminars, we want to explore the intersections and interactions of computing with all aspects of learning and life, and reflect on how they can help us teach young people. We were delighted to welcome Professor Mark Guzdial (University of Michigan) as our first speaker.

Professor Mark Guzdial, University of Michigan

Mark has worked in computer science (CS) education for decades and has won numerous awards for his research, including the prestigious ACM SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution to Computing Education award in 2019. He has written hundreds of articles on computer education, and he is the author of an extremely popular computer education research blog book that keeps us all up to date with what is happening in the field.

Young learners in front of computers in a classroom.

In his talk, Mark focused on his recent work developing Task-Specific Programming (TSP) languages, with which teachers can add a teaspoon (also abbreviated TSP) of programming to a wide variety of subjects. in schools. Mark’s main thesis is that if we want everyone to be exposed to computing, we need to integrate it into a range of subjects in the school curriculum. And he explained that this idea of ​​“adding a teaspoon” encompasses some fundamental principles; for TSP languages ​​to succeed, they must:

  • Meet the needs of teachers
  • Be relevant to the context or lesson in which it appears
  • Be technically easy to handle

Mark summed it up well as “being both usable and useful”.

Historical views on why we should all learn computer science

We can learn a lot by going back in time and thinking about the history of computing. Mark began his talk by sharing the views of some of the prominent early computer scientists on the subject. CP Snow argued in 1961 that all students should study computer science because it was too important to be left to a small handful of people.

A quote from computer scientist CS Snow from 1961: A handful of people, having no connection with the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will secretly make decisions that will affect our lives. deep down, meaning.

Alan Perlis, also in 1961, argued that everyone in college should study a course in computer science rather than a subject such as calculus. His rationale was that computing is about process and thus gives students tools they can use to change the world around them. I had never heard of this work from the 1960s before, and it suggests incredible foresight. Maybe we don’t even need to debate whether computing is for everyone – it seems like it always has been!

What’s wrong with the current situation?

In several of our seminars over the past two years, we have heard about the need to broaden participation in computer science in school. If in England, computer science is compulsory for 5 to 16 year olds (in theory, it is offered in practice to all children from 5 to 14 years old), other countries do not have computer science for the youngest . And once IT becomes optional, the numbers drop, wherever you are.

Too few students experience computers at school.

Mark told us that in US high schools, only 4.7% of students are enrolled in a computer science course. However, students are studying other subjects, which led him to conclude that IT should be introduced where students are already. For example, Mark described that at the Advanced Placement (AP) level in the United States, significantly more students choose to take history courses than CS (399,000 vs. 114,000) and the AP history cohort has a more equal gender balance and a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students.

The teaspoon approach to broadening participation

One solution to the low computer use proposed by Mark and his colleagues is to add some computer science to other subjects, and in his talk he gave us some examples from history and math , two subjects taken by a high proportion of American students. It focuses on upper secondary, ie learners aged 14 and over (upper secondary in Europe, or key stage 4 and 5 in England). To introduce a teaspoon of CS to other topics, Mark’s research group builds tools using a participatory design approach; The group works with school teachers to identify teacher and student needs and design and iterate TSP languages ​​in collaboration with them.

Three teenagers are coding on a shared computer during a computer science lesson.

Mark demonstrated a number of TSP language prototypes that his group has built for use in particular contexts. Prototypes look like simple applications, but can be classified as languages ​​because they specify a process to be executed by a computational agent. These small languages ​​are designed to be used at a specific moment in the lesson and must be able to be learned in ten minutes. For example, students can use a small “application” specific to their topic, view a script that generates a visualization, and change some variables to find out their impact on the output. Students may also be able to access and modify program code and see the impact of their changes. In this way, they discover through practical examples how computer programs work and how they can use the principles of computer science to help better understand the field they are currently studying. If the language is never used again, the cost of learning it was low enough that it was worth adding arithmetic to the lesson.

We recorded the seminar and will be sharing the video very soon, so bookmark this page.

Try TSP languages ​​yourself

You can try the TSP language prototypes that Mark shared with you, which will give you a good idea of ​​the price of a teaspoon!

DV4L: For history students, the team and participating teachers created a prototype called DV4L, which visualizes historical data. The default sample script shows population growth in Africa. Students can modify some of the variables in the script to explore data related to other countries and other historical periods. A sample lesson activity illustrates how a teacher can integrate this TSP language into a lesson.

Pixel equations: Math and engineering students can use the Pixel Equations tool to learn more about how images are made up of individual pixels. This can be brought into lessons using a variety of contexts. A sample lesson activity examines images in the context of maps. This prototype is available in English and Spanish.

Tally sheets: Another example given by Mark was Counting Sheets, an interactive tool to support the exploration of counting problems, such as the number of possible patterns that can come from flipping three coins.

Try it yourself. What topics could you imagine adding a teaspoon of IT to?

Join our next free research seminar

We would love for you to join us for the next seminar in our Interdisciplinary Computing series. On June 7, we will hear from Pratim Sengupta, from the University of Calgary, Canada. He has conducted studies in science classrooms and non-formal learning environments, focusing on providing open and engaging experiences for anyone to explore code. Pratim will share his thoughts on how more of us can engage with code when we open its richness and depth to a wider audience. He will also present his ideas on the fight against technocentrism, a key axis of his new book.

And finally… book another date!

We will soon share details about the Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Center official in-person launch event at the University of Cambridge on July 20, 2022. And guess who will come from Michigan to Cambridge, UK to officially cut the ribbon for us? That’s right, Mark Guzdial. More information will be available soon on how you can register to join us for free at this launch event.

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