US computer-science classes churn out cut-n-paste slackers – and yes, that's a bad thing

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St. Thomas More Cathedral School work on their CubeSat. Pic: NASA

Computer science (CS) students in the US aren't being taught properly, and their classes are too limited in scope, says one IT think-tank.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) says that its most recent study [PDF] of curriculum in the US has found that not enough schools are offering computer science classes, and those that do aren't going in-depth enough.

As a result, the ITIF says, many universities are failing to produce the diverse, well-trained graduates that companies seek to hire.

"There is the possibility that interest in the field could again wane like it did in 2003 following the burst of the tech bubble," ITIF warns.

"To maintain the field's current momentum, the perception of computer science needs to shift from its being considered a fringe, elective offering or a skills-based course designed to teach basic computer literacy or coding alone."

The report found that at the high school level, dedicated computer science classes are mostly limited to affluent schools, and when the courses are taught, girls and minority students are rarely enrolled.

ITIF said that the limited reach of CS classes is due to the subject being left out of many schools' STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum pushes. Rather, schools are focusing on the core stem areas and leaving dedicated CS classes out. This also contributes to the lack of diversity in university programs, as students from less affluent high schools do not enter university having taken CS classes in high school.

Even when CS is taught as its own subject, ITIF says that the curriculum does not provide enough teaching of the engineering and basic technology itself, but instead focuses largely on coding. As a result, students have little inclination to understand the systems they would be working on as IT professionals.

"Unfortunately, curriculum and standards still focus on using, rather than understanding, technology," the ITIF says.

"In fact, only 37 per cent of states' CS standards include a focus on computing concepts, while 73 per cent of state CS standards include a focus on computer skills."

In addition to teaching CS in more schools, the ITIF recommends that schools allow CS to count toward graduation as a core science or mathematics subject and seek to better train teachers to provide more technical lessons in their CS courses.

The group is also asking universities to provide better funding and assistance in CS departments to help offset the higher costs those departments (and students) incur for training. ®


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