IT Career JumpStart

Dec 16 2013   2:32PM GMT

Chicago Schools Add CS to Core Curriculum; Others Should Do Likewise

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Saw a very interesting press release from CompTIA over the weekend. Dated December 9, it’s entitled “CompTIA Applauds Chicago Public Schools Plan to Make Computer Science a Core Subject.” The title captures the gist of this effort nicely — namely, that Chicago schools will start to require at least one computer class for every high school student; that they will offer at least one computer class at every high school; and that they plan to “help students learn the tools required to build computer applications and programs, starting in elementary school.”

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It’s essential for our current in-school population to develop better-than-basic computing skills before they graduate from high school. [Shutterstock 120354628 © Ronald Sumner]

I sincerely endorse and applaud this effort, and I’ll tell you why: since August, I’ve been assisting at my son’s elementary school with an introductory programming class taught from 6:30 to 7:20 every Wednesday morning (that’s when the first bell for the morning start rings at our local elementary schools, where classes kick off officially 10 minutes later at the second bell). We have 30-35 kids showing up that early each Wednesday, and we had to turn an equal number of would-be attendees away because of class size limitations this semester. Next semester, we’ll “graduate” 20 of those 35 students to an advanced level class, and open a new introductory class to a new pool of applicants, while allowing some interested students who want to repeat the introductory class to do so.

Enrollment in our classes is limited to fourth and fifth graders, who constitute about one-third of the total student body (or about 400 kids total, in round numbers). I believe we could easily double or triple enrollment for this early morning adventure if we had more instructors and facilities. That’s what also leads me to believe that a computing class could easily become part of the standard curriculum somewhere at the fourth-, fifth-, or six-grade level. I would envision a regular curriculum as consisting of at least these three parts, and possibly more:

1. A general introduction to computing, with coverage of basic systems architecture (system organization, what’s a CPU?, exploration of graphics, memory, storage, and networking subsystems, and so forth), plus discussion of basic computer operator systems (Windows, MacOS, Linux), the command line, and basic system maintenance (applying updates, using antimalware packages, disk cleanup, and so on).
2. Basic introduction to coding. We’re using Microsoft’s free and interesting (but limited) SmallBasic right now, but I could see using a combination of HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript instead, or some other simple IDE environment instead. The idea is to teach simple design and coding skills to the students, and give them a sense of how to manage input and output, handle events, deal with errors or out-of-bounds conditions, and so forth.
3. Safe computing skills and practices. How to avoid phishing, steer clear of malware, engage in appropriate social networking, manage e-mail and online activity. Review security settings in browsers, understanding antimalware packages, stick to safe websites, avoid drive-by downloads, and so on.

Because our school-age kids can neither avoid nor ignore the digital world, it’s best that we equip them to be savvy, polished netizens of that world. For those who are interested in finding work in that sphere, school programs can help them take important first steps to understanding key job roles in IT — especially systems and network administration, software development, and information security principles and best practices — before they move onto college-level coverage of these topics. I think that however surprising it may be for me to utter (or for you to read) that Chicago schools are leading the way toward systematic and thoughtful development of technical literacy in computing and information technology, it’s indisputable that their efforts are worthwhile and potentially quite valuable. Valuable enough, I believe, that this kind of effort should become a part of the standard curriculum from fourth grade all the way through high school in our current K-12 curricula.

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