Math, science and computing – it better not be either/or. (A story on public radio where I get shown up by a 6th grader, and more)

I knew I was in trouble when I started to listen to Rowan Moore Gerety’s story on WLRN (Miami’s NPR affiliate) about bills in the Florida Legislature to replace state university admission requirements in math, science or even foreign language with high school computing courses.  Rowan led off the story with an extremely well-spoken sixth grader from Pembroke Pines named Ethan Greenberg talking about the need for computer scientists in the State of Florida.

Then, listeners got a letdown.  They got me, saying “The crazy thing about that is, if you want to be a computer scientist, it turns out you need to learn a lot of math and physics”.  I also compared allowing students to take courses in computing so that they could avoid math and science courses to “saving money on the house by skimping on the foundation.”  The print story (on the same web page as the audio version of the story) includes more details, including this:

“What you need to do is reach out to parents, students, teachers, and principals, and just tell them how important this is: Make the sale,” says Cottle, pointing out that enrollment in high school physics in Bay County has doubled since he began outreach work there last year.

But really, it was no contest.  Ethan won.  Ethan’s parents should be very proud of him.  I certainly would be.

But must computing compete with math and science?  Shouldn’t they coexist, perhaps even in the same courses?  That’s what UCF Physics Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee is engineering in Seminole County, where good stuff in K-12 math, science and computing is always happening.  Here is what Adam is working on in Seminole County, in his own words from his website on the subject:

Need another reason to envy how Seminole County Schools does science? We’re working with them to integrate coding activities into each of their middle grade science classes next year. Imagine arriving to high school with three years of scientific computing experience … wow.

The focus of these activities is to expose students to using computer programming as a tool to solve problems and answer questions. They are fully-functioning scripts that perform some task (like making a graph of a large data set) and require students to edit the program to answer a more specific question (like plotting of a particular subset of the data and re-label it). Teachers can use these activities to address their course content instead of needing to free up additional class time. These are science activities which use coding, not programming instruction, so you won’t see lessons on topics like loops and conditionals. Those elements are used and commented on, but not explicitly taught (or needed to be taught here). The trade off is leaving behind traditional Computer Science instruction for the few students enrolled in a dedicated CS course in favor of exposing all students to coding in a practical way. The teacher needs a few days of training, but does not need to be a fluent programmer, and students don’t have to sacrifice a foreign language, math, or science class to learn some coding.

You can download the activities from the site.

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