Reading, writing and algorithms

Compulsory teaching of computer science gains momentum

Cathy Salibian
3 March 2014

5 min read

In an increasingly digital world, computer science is the key to global competitiveness and well-paying jobs. Yet experts agree that too few school systems around the world are preparing primary and secondary-school students adequately for careers in the field. A growing number of educators, legislators and advocacy groups, however, are working to change that pattern.

Semester after semester, Emanuel S. Grant, associate professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks (USA), takes part in an open house for high school students interested in learning about the university’s various programs.

Sitting at the computer science table, he watches some students go out of their way to avoid the table altogether; computer science retains that “geek” stigma. Other times, a male and a female student will walk in together; the male may approach the table, but the female pointedly veers away.



The hurdles continue in the second semester of college, when students enrolled in computer science begin to fall away. Even students who believe they are interested in the field typically have been exposed only to office and gaming applications, Grant said. They don’t understand that computer science includes sophisticated mathematical algorithms, data structures and computational thinking – creating applications, not just using them. When they find themselves in alien territory, too many of the students give up.

“It’s sad to see the falloff in enrollment as students realize that what they thought is computer science is not,” Grant said. “Too few schools at the K-12 level (pre-college) in this area of the state (North Dakota) teach anything truly related to the subject. Students come to us unprepared.”


Grant is among a growing number of educators, lawmakers, business leaders and concerned citizens worldwide who are working to change that pattern through legislation, curriculum development and a fresh look at educational standards.

In a world brimming with digital technologies, the study of computer science delivers both educational and economic benefits, experts say, giving students problem-solving skills and entry to high-paying jobs. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual US salary in 2011 was US$45,230, while the average annual salary in computer and mathematical occupations was US$78,730. In a nation struggling to reduce unemployment, 150,000 computing-related jobs open annually.

Yet the number of US schools offering computer science courses is declining – from 78% in 2005 to 69% in 2011, according to the advocacy organization Computing in the Core (CinC), based in Washington, D.C. (USA). Only 14 states and the District of Columbia treat secondary-school computer science courses as core mathematics or science credits.

“Computer science is an essential skill; it’s fundamental knowledge for the 21st century and where the job growth is,” CinC founder Cameron Wilson said. “Yet many school districts still put it in the same ‘elective’ bucket as nonprofessional courses.”


Mandatory teaching of computer science education varies widely from country to country. China, the world’s most populous nation with close to 1.4 billion people, includes computer science as part of its curriculum, but wide disparities persist between rural and urban schools in how extensively the subject is taught. What’s more, some educators believe the way computer science is taught in China – emphasizing hierarchy, rote learning and copying past masters – stifles the very creativity essential to future competitiveness.

“China has shown the world it can manufacture anything; that’s what has driven its economy for 20 years,” said Dr. James A. Landay, who recently joined Cornell University’s NYC Tech campus in Manhattan, New York (USA) after 2.5 years of teaching in China. “But to move its huge population into a middle-class lifestyle, China can’t just manufacture products; it has to come up with innovative concepts and designs and market products as well as manufacture them. That’s where the money is, and in these areas China lags behind.”

In China, Landay worked as a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research Asia and taught computer science at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Computer Science & Technology attracts more students than any other undergraduate major in China, he said, but the curriculum is traditional, covering operating systems, networking and databases. It lacks cutting-edge courses in critical skills necessary for designing innovative software products, including computer-supported collaboration and user interfaces. The same is true in India, he observed. “China and India are like the US 25 years ago,” Landay said.

India is actively working to tackle the challenge, however. According to the 2011 report “Computing at School: International Comparisons” prepared by Computing at School (CaS) in collaboration with Microsoft and global researchers, India allowed each school to decide how to teach the subject through eighth grade. Starting in ninth grade, at age 14, students could take Computer Applications (the use of computing tools) and Computer Science (programming and algorithms). In June 2013, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai published a new, modernized and standardized computer science curriculum to be taught in Indian schools.

The CaS report outlines significant steps taken to promote computer science education in other areas of the world. In Germany, for example, computer science is not mandatory and cannot substitute for other science subjects, but the credits earned fully count toward graduation requirements. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which aims to shift teaching focus from facts to skills and competencies, includes computer science in the curriculum. New Zealand revamped its school curriculum in Digital Technologies to include an explicit strand entitled “Programming and computer science.” And in 2012, British Education Secretary Michael Gove moved to replace a “demotivating and dull” information and communications technology curriculum with a flexible one in computer science and programming.

“Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations,” BBC News quoted Gove saying.


The number of US schools  offering computer science  courses is declining – from  78% in 2005 to 69% in 2011.


Israel is widely regarded as the world leader in computer science education. Not surprisingly, Israel also has the world’s highest level of per-capita venture capital funding and the highest density of technology startups. In 1998, Israel’s Ministry of Higher Education implemented a secondary school computer science curriculum in which Israeli students may choose from tracks for casual or serious interest in computer science. Teachers of the subject receive specialized education and certification. Computer science education advocates worldwide consider Israel’s computer science education a model for the world. However, its successes may prove difficult to emulate in other countries. With fewer than 8 million people, Israel has a centralized education system. The US, by contrast, has a population of 316 million; its educational system is governed by a complex mix of federal, state and local authorities.

“There’s no single lever to pull to change the US education system,” said CinC’s Wilson, and the same situation exists to varying degrees in many other parts of the world. Wilson’s top recommendation to authorities at any level is to “clearly define and include K-12 (pre-college) computer science education as a critical part of education initiatives.”


After years of watching students avoid computer science or choose it only to drop out, Grant of the University of North Dakota is working with instructors worldwide to develop a coordinated global approach to computer science education. At the 2013 International Conference on Computer Science Education in Thailand, Grant conducted a workshop on developing a collaborative paradigm for software engineering curriculums worldwide.

Business is global, Grant said, but curriculum standards are not, making it difficult for companies to know exactly what skills to expect from the graduates they hire. “When you look at what to teach at the college level, you have to consider what kind of preparation those students bring from their primary and secondary schools,” Grant said. “Students need to understand that computer science isn’t just for geeks. It’s cool.”

Frequently, the discussion of global computer science education focuses on national competitiveness — as if one nation’s win is another’s loss. Landay and Grant take a different point of view. “Everyone creating the best products they can is good for all of us,” Landay said. “In the long run, people tend to specialize in what they do best. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

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