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Computing Our Children's Future

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To the age-old question -- "What do you want to do when you grow up?" -- children today give many modern answers: "Help feed hungry families." "Prevent and cure diseases." "Find sources of renewable energy." "Understand the universe."

One clear path leads to each of these aspirations: the study of computer science. Computer models and applications enable farmers to increase crop yields, HIV-positive patients in Africa to receive lifesaving treatment, industry to reduce its carbon footprint, and explorers to study the stars. Computing has become the universal underpinning of scientific advancement and economic activity.

This week is the nation's first Computer Science Education Week. It demonstrates that the hopes and dreams of our future leaders will not be realized by simply knowing how to turn on a computer, but by turning kids on to computer science.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Today's Internet-savvy, video game-saturated culture has lulled parents into thinking that children already know what they need to know. But the ability to operate a PC, use a Wii, or surf the Web is no preparation for truly understanding computing.

That understanding starts early. And it starts with mastery of fundamental concepts related to computational thinking. Elementary and middle school students should be exposed to thinking about data, representing information, using computation and combining these concepts to solve problems as part of math and science courses. This basic knowledge can then form a foundation for more formal computer science courses in high school and beyond.

Unfortunately, nearly three out of four fourth-grade math and science teachers do not have a sufficient understanding of their subjects. In high-poverty middle and high schools, most did not even major or minor in math or science. "Too many middle school students are being taught by a generalist," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Compounding the problem is curriculum. In 1983, the landmark A Nation at Risk report called for students to take three years of math and science to graduate. A quarter century later, nearly half the states still do not require this amount. It is shocking, but not surprising, that the U.S. ranked 35th out of 40 nations in math and 29th in science, according to the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Schools struggling to teach basic core subjects are often unprepared to elevate computer science to its proper status. Many focus on teaching computer literacy - the ability to carry out basic tasks on a computer - sometimes confusing this with computer science - the study of computer processes and designs to solve problems. Most schools do not enhance other courses with sufficient deep computing concepts, and offer computer science only as an "elective" course or consign it to career and technical education.

Odd as it may seem in the Information Age, schools are actually scaling back computer science courses at all levels. A Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) survey found the percentage of high schools that offer rigorous computing courses has fallen from 40 percent to 27 percent from 2005-2009. And a majority of states do not have certification for computer science teachers or computer science standards to inform rigorous instruction.

Computer Science Education Week (www.csedweek) brings national attention to these challenges. The computing community, including industry leaders, is spotlighting the connection between computer science education and success in a digital world.

Together, we have already begun to develop and share best practices. The Association for Computing Machinery and the CSTA have issued a model computer science curriculum for K-12 education. The National Science Foundation is funding the creation of a rigorous new Advanced Placement Computer Science course for college-bound students. And we are working on strategies to address the significant shortage of women and minorities in the field.

We are seeing real progress across the nation. Texas, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia are working on ways to count rigorous computer science courses as a mathematics or science credit toward meeting graduation requirements. Some states are changing their teacher credentialing process to allow computer science and other professionals to become adjunct teachers. Universities such as the University of California are adjusting admission requirements to give rigorous computer science courses more weight.

President Obama and Congress have provided national leadership. They have increased funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Now they need to elevate computer science within STEM majors and fields.

The myth that all computing jobs are going overseas is just that - a myth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is one of fastest-growing and highest-paying sectors of the economy. More than 800,000 high-paying professional information technology jobs will be added between 2006 and 2016 - a 24 percent increase.

Simply put, computing drives innovation in all fields. Our society needs professionals with the ability to solve problems across multiple disciplines. And the rewards for doing so are huge. "'Where is the money?' I ask my students," wrote nationally renowned calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. "It is in physics, computers, biology, chemistry, and electronics."

In the 1950s, the launch of Sputnik compelled America to improve math and science education. Today, the mastery of cyberspace, not outer space, will determine our future. It is time to launch a new generation of innovative professionals. Computer Science Education Week is an excellent start.

Maria Klawe is the President of Harvey Mudd College and a member of Board of Directors at Microsoft, Inc. Andrew Chien is a Vice President at Intel Labs and the director of Future Technologies Research. Rick Rashid is a Senior Vice President of Research at Microsoft, Inc., and Alfred Spector a Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives at Google, Inc.

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