November 10, 2020

CHEN | Put Computer Science in the Common Core

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I could easily have gone through high school without writing a single line of code. 

The one computer science course I did take was selected on a whim, a simple space-filler for my senior year schedule. Science and math were enjoyable enough, and tech seemed like the next unexplored realm. But I was also on the edge of taking a random biotechnology elective, zoology class or just leaving the space free to take extra naps. There was little to no initiative — or requirement — to learn about computing other than the fact that I found phone apps addictive and played around with Scratch when I was a kid. AP Computer Science had the same weight as my elective journalism or strings classes, not AP Chemistry or AP Language and Composition.

Yet, upon coming to Cornell (and I’m sure this is true of other universities), there is a seemingly never-ending abundance of computer science majors. Every which way, the phrase “I’m majoring in computer science,” or some variation of it, pops up. I’ll acknowledge, I’m guilty of saying this phrase every time there’s a new icebreaker on the horizon. The people I come into contact with on a daily basis are skewed to be more interested in tech. But as high schoolers, you are rarely exposed to tech, one of the largest fields coming into university and industry as well. The common core found in high schools does not actively reflect our job market, or even the fields of interest as they are in university. There is too much emphasis on general and theory-filled subjects and too little focus on more application-based topics like ‘how to write a check’ and ‘how to calculate a tip.’ The common core is outdated and begging for an upgrade. Why is it that computer science is one of the largest majors at Cornell, but is rarely explored before university?

Cornell Engineering has already started to notice this trend with the recently added requirement for all engineering students to take a computing course. It’s not uncommon for a student to take CS 1110: Introduction to Computing Using Python and immediately pivoting their career path into computing. For some, this requirement is the sole reason why they consider a future in tech. There are regrets that they hadn’t learned about it sooner, as opposed to other students who participated in coding summer camps or opted to take computing electives available in their high school program. If this exposure takes such a hold on university students, why don’t we expose high school students to it as well?

Speaking from the perspective of a primarily STEM-focused student in high school who labored her way through each English, Social Studies and Foreign Language course, the common core should aim to balance the curriculum out with a year-long requirement for a technology course. Science and math will always be essentials for me, but I hope that computer science will bring to students something that feels a little more applicable to the real world. 

Beyond the quickly expanding field and vast career opportunities, coding in general is a skill that more high schoolers should be exposed to. From all that I’ve learned in the past two years, coding becomes more of a mindset rather than a dense load of course work. It teaches you how to solve types of problems rather than individual plug and chugs that you can enter into a calculator. You learn to properly explain your thought processes every time you document your code. You learn to think critically about what you’ve typed and how it should function. When it doesn’t function that way you think it should, you get to practice troubleshooting, figuring out where your program and thought process went wrong. I can’t say that learning how to code transformed my attitude or allowed me to transcend any basic mental processes, but it definitely has been mind-bending to think about problems as a whole, rather than individually conquering them. You have to solve how to do something for a whole group of inputs, not just a singular question where x equals 16 and y equals 92. No matter the future career, just about anyone can benefit from learning how to write a for-loop or create a new variable.

You may be wondering, at what cost though? What subject would have to go? What part of our picture-perfect common core would have to give?

The answer is nothing. There is plenty of room in the common core these days for improvement. For a system that has been static for so many years as the U.S’s dynamic job market grows, it’s due for an update as well. 

I can’t speak for all high schools, but there was definitely some leeway within the high school curriculum at my school to get everything done with a few elective courses to spare. And if not, plenty of coding summer camps and programs could be eligible to satisfy this computer science requirement for students. High school is supposed to be a place where you explore countless subjects and maybe, hopefully, begin to figure out what you want to study for the rest of your life. We shouldn’t deprive these teenagers of one of the largest fields in our society today. High school may have been stuffed with teen drama, identity crises and college applications, but for me, a few things might have been cleared up earlier if I had taken AP Computer Science in freshman year, rather than senior year. 

Jonna Chen is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at jc2627@cornell.edu. jonna.write() runs every other Wednesday this semester.