With all the recent talk about improving math and basic science education to keep the United States competitive, Chris Stephenson worries that a third piece of the educational picture is being forgotten: computer science.

Now Stephenson, who is executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), is hoping to overcome that somewhat by giving away free teaching resources for use in K-12 computer classes.

Learning computer science and technology skills is “incredibly important,” said Stephenson. “We are an increasingly technological society, and if you don’t understand the tool that you’re using, even at an introductory level, you can run into problems very quickly.”

Stephenson added that today’s citizens are “living in an increasingly global economy that’s tied to the success of our high-tech industry … It’s increasingly important that we have people to do the [technology] jobs.”

The countries that develop the technology tools the rest of the world uses are the ones that have a global advantage, she said. And the computer science and technological skills that drive this development can translate into skills in other fields as well.

“When you think about what it means to be an educated person in this society, there has been a paradigm shift,” Stephenson said. “Understanding technology is a basic need for anyone … who considers [himself or herself] an educated person.”

In conjunction with IBM Corp., CSTA has developed and tested lesson plans and other materials that help educators teach important skills such as web design and Java programming.

Other free resources for computer science teachers have been made available before, but Stephenson said those have tended to be slightly modified versions of training guides originally intended for professionals.

“This is really kind of a new approach,” she said. “The thing that computer science teachers say they want more than anything else is access to good resources. It is not exaggerating in any way to say they are really desperate for them.”

The free resources are a combination of lesson plans, class activities, PowerPoint presentations, and other elements. The resources are designed for K-12 use, but Stephenson said they are best suited for middle and high schools because the level of sophistication is beyond K-6.

Stephenson said CSTA looks forward to working with IBM in the future to create more free resources within its budget. “The response has been incredibly positive–we’re really excited about it, and IBM is really excited about it,” she said.

Currently, three free resources are offered–two aimed at students and one at teachers. The student resources cover web design and object-oriented programming, in which students use Java to create their own Pong game. The third resource is designed to help teachers learn more about project-based learning.

In the lesson “Object-Oriented Design Using Pong,” students design and implement the video game Pong using Java programming concepts. The other student course, “Web Page Design and Development,” teaches students basic web design techniques, such as how to select a web site project, how to identify the target population for a web site, and how to use storyboarding as a tool for building web sites.

“This work is critical to helping fill the pipeline with engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals who will lead in the innovation economy,” said Buell Duncan, general manager of IBM Developer Relations and the IBM Academic Initiative.

Teachers can use the pre-packaged lesson plans to break down the complexity in teaching computer science. The resources align with the curriculum standards contained in the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM’s) Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science. The ACM launched CSTA to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to get students interested in computer science careers.

Although computer science is an established discipline at the college under-graduate and post-graduate levels, its integration into the K-12 curriculum has not kept pace in the United States, the group says. Ensuring skilled individuals are prepared for jobs in the IT industry has become a major issue worldwide.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs requiring science, engineering, and technical training will increase 51 percent through 2008. This increase could lead to more than 6 million job openings for scientists, engineers, and technicians.

Shane Torbert, a teacher at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, participated in the six-week pilot of the new CSTA lessons. “The structure of the lessons encouraged students to think through the design of a computer program, from problem statement to solution,” said Torbert. “I have found the design process generally hard to teach, and these lessons helped significantly ease my instruction.”

The project was funded through a $75,000 grant from IBM. The company also contributed three of the six people who developed the teaching resources. The material became available on April 13.

The resources are supported by the IBM Academic Initiative program, which offers faculty and students at universities a wide range of technology education benefits to encourage the use of open-standards technology.

Links:

Computer Science Teachers Association
http://www.csta.acm.org

CSTA and IBM resources
http://www.csta.acm.org/Resources/sub/RecommendedResources.html

IBM Corp.
http://www.ibm.com