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State eyes computer courses

BY ALLIE BISCUPSKI | JULY 01, 2015 5:00 AM

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Iowa’s high-school students could soon be required to take computer-science courses as a part of Iowa’s public-school curriculum.

Last week, a state committee recommended that Gov. Terry Branstad require the classes for high-school students throughout the state.

“When we made the recommendation last Tuesday, we made it clear that computer science as a core requirement is not more important than other classes such as the arts, drama, and the like,” said Mark Gruwell, a co-chairman of the STEM computer-science group. “We need to recognize that computer science complements these other disciplines.”

Alberto Segre, a University of Iowa professor of computer science, said he thinks high-school students should be exposed to computer science, but he is skeptical about the implementation of these courses.

“In principle, it’s a great idea. [But] people say computer science, and they mean different things,” Segre said. “Anybody can teach a computer-science class on how to teach Excel and Word; is that going to qualify?“

Tight school budgets and a lack of qualified teachers are also problems that need to be addressed before a new mandated course can be implemented, he said.

“You have a structural problem of how do we train teachers to teach computer science when there isn’t even an endorsement at the state level?” Segre said. “There’s no incentive to teach high school if they’re coders or they’re computer scientists.”

Gruwell said at this stage of the recommendation, the way the course would be integrated in to high schools is still unclear. 

“We don’t know what that computer-science component will be yet,” he said. “That discussion is for another day. There’s a lot of discussion to be had about things like funding, but we’re confident that there is a way to implement [the changes] and at the same time meet funding needs.”

City High School junior Esme Rummelhart said she would like to see more computer-science classes at her high school.

“Personally, I would like to get more familiar with computers,” she said. “Being more comfortable with computers and taking computer science can be helpful in a lot of different fields.”

Because of the nature of the subject, the STEM committee made it clear when proposing its recommendation that an array of classes are needed to complement students’ interests.

“Having options would be a necessity since computer science is a very broad topic and people will use it differently,” Rummelhart said. “There are all sorts of fields that tie into it so having to do it is probably much more of a benefit than a [detriment].”

Segre said the optimal high-school course would be a survey course, which teaches students how to go about solving computation problems.

“It should be an exposure to what we call computational thinking,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you can write the code to do it. It means you’re prepared to understand something like an algorithm. Even just understanding what an algorithm is is going to be helpful.”

While still unclear what a mandated high-school course of computer science would look like, Segre said, if implemented properly, the course would be invaluable in a technological world.

“It’s a great idea. It should happen,” he said. “We should teach something about computer science in high school. Every high-school student will be better equipped for this millennium because they’ve been exposed to algorithmic thinking, computational thinking, and thinking about computing.”


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