Friday, September 4, 2009

Math Contests -> CS Contests?

This week I dived into a couple papers included in the book "Reconfiguring the Firewall" by Burger, Cremer, and Meszaros.

The first paper "Revisiting Culture, Time, and Information Processing Factors in Connecting to Girls' Interest and Choice of an Information Technology Career at the Secondary Level" by Meszaros and Kahle helped to really set the tone for my entire thought process this week. Specifically the line that reached out the strongest to me was concerning young women's decision not to take CS in high school was"computer science was either not offered or not considered necessary for acceptance to highly selective colleges." (45) The reason this line speaks out so strongly is the consistent narrative present in a significant portion of college computer science students. Specifically, the computer science courses at the high school level are few and the courses that are robust or go beyond programming are even fewer. Competition for positions in elite collge programs are getting worse all the time. No longer is a 4.0 GPA enough, you have to go above and beyond and GPAs start to approach 4.5. You can't just be valedictorian of your school you have to be valedictorian of the state. At some point the top of the class starts to look like a monolithic block and it becomes difficult enough to tell anybody apart as it is.

In such an environment, the high school computer science curriculum has no place. Too many narratives of inadequate cs courses abound. Much credit is due to the computer science teachers who are working to change that and make the coursework a valuable part of a college application. At times this argument feels like a backlash to Margolis-Fisher due to the removal of computer science background from admissions criteria but at the same time, the high school computer science courses that were being offered before Margolis-Fisher weren't any more gender balanced. I don't believe reversing the critiera is going to suddenly raise the national quality of computer science courses. What this does make me wonder though is how we can make computer science a valuable part of high school student's college applications?

From this springs one item which is undoubtedly present on countless members of CMU's computer science class. The heralded math competition permeates many college students applications and are well regarded across the nation. From the school to the state to the national level math contests continue to shape primary through high school education. In 4th to 6th grade I personally competed in math olympiads, 7th to 9th I was invested in Math Counts, of which the national competition is broadcast on ESPN. 10th to 12th I was a regular top finisher in the state math contest. Not a year of my adolescence when by when I wasn't competing in some form of math competition.

That being said, what exists in the same vein for computer science? Certainly they're not as apparent as the math competitions for a variety of reasons but what is out there and what can we do to increase their visibility? By establishing competitions we get around the "full schedules" Meszaros and Kahle cite as a reason students don't take computer science, give students something they can do to beef up their college applications, and most importantly increase the visibility of computer science in those critical pre-college years.

This little light bulb has highlighted some questions I intend to look at in the upcoming weeks. What content would be on such an exam for middle schoolers? What about high schoolers? Can we insert the agile programming and pair programming methods cited repeatedly as instances of the need for teamwork in computer science into the competition? What computer science contests already exist locally? Nationally? Internationally? What is the interest level for such a competition? Should we set quotas to ensure teams are gender diverse? What about the current student body, have they participated in computer science competitions? Moreover, did they participate in math competitions? Are these competitions remembered fondly? Are they part of the reason they became computer scientists?

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