Where does Computer Science Belong?

To some extent Computer Science is the red headed step child of K-12 education. It just doesn’t fit nicely in a box. Science often doesn’t want it because it doesn’t always meet their idea of what “science” is about. Math doesn’t always want it because it uses too much hardware and it doesn’t fit in their preconceived flow of math curriculum. What does it come before or after? It shows up in some business departments where it is an awkward fit at best. And CS programs that are not part of business departments have this tendency to look down on business computer courses as “too vocational.” And of course in most states (41 as I understand it) computer science can not be used to satisfy any high school graduation requirement. As a pure elective it is often very difficult to keep classes running let alone full as students tune their transcripts for college/university admissions.

As reported in Dr Dobb’s and other places:

The National Governors Association (NGA) Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have released the first official public draft of the K-12 standards as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a process being led by governors and chief state school officers in 51 states, territories, and the District of Columbia. […] Interestingly, this year "computer science" is included as a senior-level high school course for students who meet the "readiness level" by grade 11 within the latest draft of the Common Core Standards for Mathematics.

And most states that do allow for CS courses for graduation credit do so as meeting a math requirement. So it’s settled right? Well not so fast. I know a number of teachers who have some concerns about this. One of them sent me email recently complaining that the AP conference this summer had computer science listed under mathematics and suggesting that it should be a stand alone section. Well so? What is the problem of including Computer Science within math? A couple of things come to mind.

One is certification. Certification for computer science teachers is a mess in the US as it is. Courses in math departments tend to require that teachers be certified in math which is not near the same thing as being certified or even qualified to teach computer science. Then there is the matter of CS not being seen as central to the mission of most math departments. First course likely to be lost in the shuffle or budget cuts or scheduling issues? Computer Science. As least in the perception of many. Then there is the loss of independence. In schools where computer science is independent of other departments teachers tend to have more flexibility in curriculum, texts, independent studies, and other options. Computer science teachers can be an independent bunch for one thing but things get more difficult when you have to “sell” changes to a department head who doesn’t understand what you are trying to do. None of this is a problem everywhere of course and there are schools where computer science fits comfortably into math departments. I think. 🙂

One other factor I see is that there is a movement in the greater world of computer science to be about “computer science and” where almost anything can be the “and.” CS and Math? Obviously. CS and sciences – physics/biology/chemistry? Why not? CS and pre-engineering? Oh I hope so. Is this easier when CS is its own department? In many cases it probably is.

But the reality is that computer science needs to fit in somewhere right now. Even if run as an independent department computer science courses are only going to be accepted as graduation requirement meeting options as part of something else. The best candidate right now is Mathematics. That is the political and practical reality. We don’t have to like it but we probably have to live with it for a while. Just my opinion. What’s yours?

Edit: Related to this post, Cameron Wilson of ACM wrote a post called Computing and the Common Core that you should read. The most important part of it is his call to action.

Now the community can support this breakthrough by sending letters for support for the inclusion of computer science in the final document. The initiative is taking comments on the draft until April 2. There are two ways to comment. The first is by taking the survey, which as an additional comment area where you can express support for computer science. (Follow this link  External Linkand click on the "submit feedback" to get to the survey.) The second is by sending letters to commonstandards@ccsso.org.

Comments (8)

  1. Garth says:

    Oh boy, this is going to be a good one.  I am at a small private school so this is not a major issue.  Our CS courses are part of our Practical Arts department.  What is Practical Arts you ask?  All the weird stuff that really does not fit in a "normal" field of study or is a single course like Entrepreneurship, Accounting, Computer Apps, Drivers Ed, Computer Tech, Programming, Underwater Basket Weaving, etc.  At a local public school the Apps is part of the Business department, the Computer Tech (an A+ type course) is with the shop courses, and Programming is on its own.  With over 3000 kids in the school district they get about 20 in Programming.  Than 20 is the total for Freshman through Senior classes.  Ouch.  In Montana CS is sort of in limbo.  The State Office of Public Instruction has no Standards for CS or Programming.  There are no methods courses for either and there is no CSEd degree offered.  Every CS teacher I know is/was a math teacher at one time and has learned on-the-job.  It is obvious from the emphasis put on teacher training there is no need for CS teachers or CS students.  That is OK, the Chinese and Indians will provide all that are needed.

  2. I believe that Computer Science is a field where many other fields converge. It’s a science after all, look at its name. It often uses the scientific method pattern to solve problems and so on. It involves math more often than not. It requires a bit skill, with documentation and all, some history is needed, you know, for that programming part. I probably could go on. CS is where so many fields meet.

    My AP CS class has only 6 people in. We started with 10, and we’re in Q3 now. This is out of 2100 students in high school.

  3. Not sure where it "belongs" but when I taught it was in the "Related Arts" program (similar to Garth) which also included Drama, Art, Music, Home Ec, Shop, etc. That is, it was an "other".  Which is/was odd because some classes had Math pre-reqs.

    Certification, assessment, national standards, are all issues here.

  4. Jim Peters says:

    I’m in my second year of teaching this subject at a vocational school in Massachusetts.  I think I’m in the best place among the state standards for teaching some aspects of CS – but this is high school and our kids are starting from almost the beginning.   Its not college so we can’t take them to CS courses and tend to stay away from theory.   CS has become hands on and if you ask any 7th or 8th grader what they want to do with computers it tends to be answered with "I want to play/make/create games".    I don’t see how that files neatly under Math.   When I left high school in the mid-80s many colleges I looked at had CS programs either in the Math department or the Engineering side.  No one then that I looked at filed it under a creative or art category.   If you are going to make games, you’ve got to come closer to that creative side to reach more of the population.       not everything about CS is math, logic and analysis.   I did land in a CS program that had just left the CS department.  For the 80’s that made sense.   For 2010, it does not.   A computer is a tool that can be used in so many more ways than processing data or implementing algorithms.    Our kids love the Alice programming language.  We’re trying hard to get XNA to run on our hardware but we’re not yet been successful.

  5. dougpete says:

    In Ontario, we’ve danced around a number of scenarios in Mathematics, Science, Business Education, and have now landed with Computer Studies as its own subject area.


    A course in Computer Studies can be used as one of the Group 3 Compulsory Credits for Graduation.

    This is the first year for compulsory implementation of the new curriculum which features both a university and a college strand.  The issue remains, however, how do we attract more students to this subject area?  If anyone has the magic answer, I’d love to hear it.

  6. arthur hu says:

    amen brother. It was a math class in high school in Renton WA in 1975, but I skipped it to stay after school with the HP desktop computer we had to learn basic, I taught myself 2D and 3D graphics, to this day unless you are on a gaming track, you don’t learn graphics even if you are a CS major at MIT. In 2010, no college requires CS for admission, and no high school requires CS for graduation, but they do require physics, biology and chemistry, and you can’t get a job in any of those with a high school background but a HS computer class might actually get you a programming or testing job. Math isn’t a bad place to start, tacked onto voc ed might actually give those folks a tech focus since you don’t actually need a college degree to do a lot of computer jobs.

  7. RC in ICT says:

    My vote is Math with a tie-in to the other departments (e.g., the physical sciences, business, arts, etc.).  Why?  Basically, the art of Boolean logic, theorem proving, etc. is a great foundation for understanding what I consider the evolutional aspect of "computer science."  Whether trying to understand the "problem" or achieve the "solution," being able to understand the "flow" is critical in my mind and this would seem to me to lie at the heart of the issue, and make Math the logical leader of the pack.  Unless of course you just want to be done with all that and tie in to the Philosophy department instead!  🙂

  8. Gail says:

    I’ve run into this problem when trying to offer computer science activities for Let’s Talk Science (I’m in Ontario).  Teachers seem to think the only place these activities fit is in programming class. 🙁

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