Teachers tackle computer science

Teachers tackle computer science

URBANA — On the third floor of the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science on the University of Illinois campus Friday morning, 20 Champaign high school teachers turned their tables into nodes, simulating how information travels along specific paths.

The teachers were moving pieces of paper — which each contained parts of a picture that represented data — around to different nodes, but they had to be moved through specific pathways defined by blue painter's tape lines on the floor between the tables and a diagram written on the room's white board.

Once they exchanged enough data to turn those pieces of paper into a complete picture, the teachers talked with Lenny Pitt and Craig Zilles, faculty members in the UI's Department of Computer Science, about how the connections and traffic they simulated works on the Internet.

The teachers spent the week learning about computer science as the school district starts integrating the subject into its curriculum from kindergarten through high school.

Zilles said computers affect everything students do, which makes teaching them computer science skills even more important.

However, he said there tends to be a "chicken and egg" problem in that they need trained teachers. That's where this summer's workshop comes in.

"This is an effort to introduce teachers to computing," he said.

This year at the high school level, every Champaign freshman will take a four-week unit on computer programming within a freshman seminar. The teachers who will teach that unit were a part of this week's workshop.

But the workshop was also attended by teachers of history, language arts, special education and even art, and they will begin thinking about how to incorporate computer science into their work and will perhaps make proposals on computer science specific classes in the future, said Matt Sly, who's an instructional technology coach at Centennial.

It's possible for Champaign's high schools in the future to offer specific classes on computer science related topics, offer Advanced Placement computer science classes or even offer dual-credit classes on related topics through Parkland College.

And those courses won't necessarily be on computer science, said Laura Taylor, the Champaign school district's assistant superintendent of Achievement and Student Services.

Future courses could also be on things like networking, music or using computers to make art, she said.

"We're just trying to wrap our hands around it and figure out where to go," Taylor said.

Pitt said there's a shortage of workers for the computer science and information technology sector, and teaching students more about computer programming can introduce more graduates into those fields.

Plus, in the same way chemistry is considered a worthwhile subject for students to study in school — even if they don't become professional chemists — computer science can teach students about logic and problem solving, Pitt said.

Plus, knowing more about how computers work and what they're capable of will help students understand things like how their data moves around the Internet.

There's no current curriculum for computer science in K-12 education, Pitt said, and even though an AP class is offered, only about a half to 1 percent of all AP exams are taken on the topic.

"Again, we need trained teachers to set the curriculum," Pitt said, and the teachers' work this week could ultimately result in different pathways for students to move through depending on their interests in the subject.

"This is really just the beginning," he said.

New school board member Kerris Lee — who had been previously involved in adding computer programming education to the Champaign schools before being selected to the board earlier this week — said teaching computer science allows students to understand how to control computers, rather than just use them or the software on them.

Doing so will allow them to work in a quickly growing industry and create much-needed innovations to strengthen the economy, he said.

"It's about empowering kids," he said. "Computer science is about getting them to reach their goals and where they want to be in life. It gives them options."

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