Computer Science Education and Informal Learning: Exemplars from Our Collection

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December 12th, 2014

Earlier this week, we witnessed a group of young people teach President Obama and Vice President Biden how to program. During the heavily mediated tutoring session, our “Coder in Chief” commented to his teacher, “You gotta slow down, ‘cause I’m an old man”. That moment served as a vignette on the importance of informal learning. Effectively engaging students in computer science basics is a challenge no matter the age of the audience. It’s not essential to understand binary and powers of 2 to learn to code, but formal languages impose a structure on thought that is often difficult for adults to grok, let alone young people. contains a wealth of computing and information science resources for educators, researchers, and evaluators. As Computer Science Education Week draws to a close, we thought it pertinent to highlight exemplars from our collection that apply to this contemporary moment, yet address field-wide, long-standing themes of engagement, gender division and barriers to access in the sciences. Currently in progress and recently added to our collection is GrACE, a project which aims to teach computational thinking to middle school students through procedurally generated puzzles. Read more about GrACE and view their poster on its project page. A 2006 article, Images of self and others as computer users: the role of gender and experience investigates the role gender plays in perceptions of self and others as computer scientists. The report is filled with fascinating drawings and descriptions by students of their idea of a “computer-type person”. The recent appointment of former Google VP Megan Smith as the White House Chief Technology Officer is a milestone in bridging the gender divide so trenchant in technology-related fields, serving as a public symbol that not all successful computer scientists are male and wear glasses. An earlier effort to bridge the digital divide is The computer clubhouse: Technological fluency in the inner city. While this project is nearly 20 years old, I present it here to illustrate two points: first, the advancement of computer science education, and the STEM movement in general, is not specific to this moment nor is it a passing fad: if anything, it is just now gaining steam and wider recognition; and second, the quality of this project, and it’s approach, is still relevant and applicable today regardless of changes in technology. While technology may evolve at an exponential pace, what doesn’t change is the relationship between teacher and student and the community those relationships engender, whether formal or informal. Each of the projects highlighted above points to the importance of instilling and developing lifelong learning skills so that young and old, pre-teen and President, may be active, informed participants in the construction of the 21st century.