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Real Computer Education

 By John Richard Schrock

John Richard Schrock

The most recent report on “State of Computer Science Education: Understanding Our National Imperative” provides a clear warning: “Nearly two-thirds of high-skilled immigration is for computer scientists, and every state is an importer of this strategic talent. The USA has 700,000 open computing jobs, but only 80,000 computer science graduates a year. We must educate American students as a matter of national competitiveness.”
As a result, every state in the Union has implemented from one to nine policies attempting to boost American students’ exposure to computer education, often adding it as a graduation requirement and often dumping significant money into a continual turnover of equipment that rapidly becomes obsolete.
These efforts go back over a decade. Yet we see little if any improvement in American students moving from U.S. K–12 into college computer science.  Instead, the highest levels of Computer and Information Science graduates (64.3%) and Computer Science Post-docs (67.4%) in the U.S. remain foreign students on temporary visas.
Long ago, I took programming courses in Basic, Fortran, and Pascal. These were wasted credit hours because in just a few years, each of these computer languages went from being new to being obsolete.
It is impressive to see our young generation work rapidly on their cell phones and computers. But when they move into early jobs at the local hamburger restaurant or elsewhere, the digital equipment is unique and continually evolving. They learn rapidly. But this is not programming.
So I have asked colleagues with relatives in the computer industry what skills are central to computer programming? The answer came back: algebra and sentence diagramming. Algebra makes sense because of the logic behind that particular math. Sentence diagramming was a surprise until you consider the similar logic involved in mapping out the subject, actions of verbs, modifers, etc.  
So where are those immigrants who are desperately needed to fill “computer jobs” coming from? And why are they more successful than American students?  Nearly half of current advanced chip manufacturing is in Taiwan (TSMC) and South Korea (Samsung). “Our” new plants that are being built in Arizona not only have to import their machinery but also their trained talent from Asia.
I also check the Taiwan “Science Bulletin” issued in February of 2001, over 20 years ago. The front page is titled “Helping Semiconductor Technology Take Root in Taiwan” and discusses the million dollar Taiwan government donations to their National Science Council to establish semiconductor R&D. I turn the page to find the year 2000 rankings of students from major countries based on the international TIMSS assessment tests. In algebra, Taiwan is number one, followed by South Korea (2), Singapore (3), Japan (4) and Hong Kong (5). The U.S. ranked 16th. In content areas of science, Taiwan ranks first, Singapore (2), Hungary (3), Japan (4) and South Korea (5). The U.S. ranked 18th.
The other major source of our computer programmers is India. I would recommend to readers that they go eat at some India food restaurants so you can talk with the younger men and women who graduated from high school in India before they came to the U.S. They grew up at home speaking one of many regional languages: Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, etc. But having a British colonial history, their schooling is in British English. And the major exam that they take at the end of high school that determines if and where they go to college includes sentence diagramming (direct and indirect objects, modifiers, prepositions, gerunds, infinitives, etc.). This skill is rigorously taught in high schools in India and learned by those wishing to continue their education. But class sizes in India are about 60 students. And computers are few.
Meanwhile in the U.S., sentence diagramming has been relegated to a minor part of English classwork or totally abandoned—it is not in the “Common Core.” And many states are now ending their requirement of algebra for attending college for non-science majors. Much of the increasing time our K-12 students now waste on classroom computers using soon-outdated coding would be much better spent increasing student coursework on algebra and sentence diagramming.

(John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years at Emporia State University)

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