Connecting and Integrating Computer Science With Other Disciplines
How should I think about computer science in relation to other high school courses? What sort of connections with other disciplines and courses can or should be emphasized?
This tool explores how computer science might be integrated or connected with other classes or disciplines. It discusses both the potential for integrating computer science content into other courses, as well as using computer science to fulfill graduation requirements in other subject areas.
Why do you need to know this?
There are many potential connections that computer science can have with other high school content and courses. Some of these connections have the potential to accelerate and enhance computer science education efforts. However, not all of these connections are likely to be easy to implement, and many may have unintended consequences for students, teachers, and schools.
How does this tool help?
This tool considers two areas of potential integration, overlap, and connection for computer science: (1) the content that is taught; and (2) the courses that are offered.
School and district leaders are faced with questions about how best to connect computer science courses with other disciplines or departments. Generally, these questions fall into two related categories.
- Content. Where and how can computer science content best be integrated or connected with other disciplines? What connections or overlaps between the computer science teachers are teaching and the content and lessons in other classes might they consider?
- Courses. Should computer science be positioned as a separate academic department, or part of an existing mathematics, science, or other department? Should computer science classes satisfy graduation requirements in mathematics, science, or other subjects? What considerations should students, parents, counselors, and others take into account when looking at computer science courses within the mix of other high school requirements?
The best answer to these questions is in most cases is “It depends.” It depends on the nature of the computer science content that is to be learned. It depends on the design and implementation of the computer science course, and of the course it could replace or supplant. It depends on the current structures and relationships among teachers and departments within the high school or district. It depends on the standards and goals in place for other disciplines.
Some frameworks for STEM integration have been developed (for instance, National Academy of Engineering & National Research Council, 2014) but generally do not include computer science as a component. Some work has been done to connect computational thinking to the STEM disciplines, such as Sengupta et. al.’s work to connect computational thinking at the K-8 level (Sengupta, Kinnebrew, Basu, Biswas, & Clark, 2013) or Weintrop et. al’s discussion of computational thinking in science and mathematics courses (Weintrop et al., 2015).
The Standalone Case: Computer Science By Itself
Many recommend positioning computer science in the high school context as a standalone course or course sequence not affiliated with, or positioned as part of another discipline. This is the “standalone case”: keeping computer science by itself and separate from other departments and curricular sequences. For instance, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) committee on K-12 curriculum recommends four half-year computer science courses (Tucker et al., 2004) and this model has been incorporated into the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) K-12 computer science education standards (Seehorn et al., 2011). Major computer science education advocacy organizations believe that “computer science should be considered as its own subject within the K-12 system” (Hirotaka, 2014).
Implications and Recommendations
There are advantages for leaders who take the standalone perspective: redesigning courses and lessons in other disciplines, changing teacher roles and altering multiple courses are all complicated and generally involve considerable expertise and support. Keeping the computer science work relatively separate from other school or district efforts enables a crisper focus and provides an easier pathway to get started since less curriculum and professional development is impacted.
Computer Science and Mathematics
Computers are playing an increasing role in the study of mathematics (National Research Council, 2013). Content in the common core state standards for mathematics (CCSS-M) includes some limited aspects of computational thinking and computing practices (Council of Chief State School Officers & NGA Center for Best Practices, 2009), so mathematics can be another place to position computer science content and courses. For example, one of the standards for mathematical practice in the CCSS calls for students to be able to “reason abstractly” and “model with mathematics.” CSTA has developed an alignment matrix connecting the CSTA K-12 standards to the standards for mathematical practice, though the nature and substance of the alignment is not clearly described. However, most computer science courses currently are designed to “apply or fill gaps in students’ mathematical knowledge but include little new mathematics or emphasis on deepening understanding of students’ existing mathematical knowledge” (NCTM Emerging Issues Committee, 2015) so leaders are advised to exercise caution when equating content in these disciplines. Given that the CCSS-M practice standards are designed to work closely alongside the CCSS-M content standards and are quite inseparable from them (Illustrative Mathematics, 2014), merely adding computer science content to a mathematics course without careful thinking about content and sequencing will likely be problematic. Furthermore for most high school students, the new CCSS-M will require three years of high school mathematics courses (National Governors Assocation, Council of Chief State School Officers, & Achieve, 2008).
Some curriculum development work has been done to create computer science courses that include considerable mathematics content. The College Board has produced an alignment matrix which demonstrates that AP Computer Science A aligns to some of the mathematics content in the common core state standards—particularly the portions focused on equations and functions. Despite this overlap, AP Computer Science A is still a computer science course and not a mathematics course, and as such does not align to the same extent as AP Calculus and AP Statistics (Hart, Carman, Luisier, & Vasavada, 2011). A review of popular computer science courses for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found relatively few opportunities to learn new mathematics:
“While acknowledging exceptions, it seems fair to say that even the highly regarded high school computer science courses mentioned above teach very little new mathematics. They may fill in gaps, such as teaching function composition, recursion, iteration, sets, and some other discrete mathematics, but most of the mathematical content in these courses has been encountered by students in middle school together with many of the of Algebra I topics, a few geometry topics, and statistics topics relative to the CCSS-M” (NCTM Emerging Issues Committee, 2015).
There have been some attempts to connect broader ideas of “computational thinking” to K-12 mathematics curriculum (Weintrop et al., 2015), and some instructional materials exist such as Google’s Exploring Computational Thinking resources (Meyer, 2010) to move in this direction.
Implications and Recommendations
Concerning content, computer science is not a subset of mathematics, and mathematics is not a subset of computer science. However, there are clear intersections between the disciplines, and depending on the content particulars, some integration might reap benefits for students and schools alike.
Concerning courses, leaders should follow the recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, that “computer science course fulfilling a mathematics graduation requirement should involve explicit mathematical learning goals” (NCTM Emerging Issues Committee, 2015). Specifically,
- Computer science courses should count as mathematics courses (i.e., called a mathematics course on a transcript) only if the mathematics content is primary focus of the course and computer science is used as a tool for learning the mathematics.
- Computer science courses can supplant a mathematics graduation requirement if it does not take the student off the track of reaching the threshold defined in the CCSS-M for college and career readiness; practically, that means that computer science courses can supplant a mathematics course requirement if the student has completed the equivalent of Algebra I, Advanced Algebra, and Geometry, generally as an option for the 4th year of mathematics.
Computer Science and Science
Computers and computation have played an important role in science for nearly 75 years (Metropolis, 1987) and that role will only increase in the future (for instance, Burdman, 2015). However, the overlap between science and computer science courses has been limited. The “science and engineering practices” in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013) include “using mathematics and computational thinking” (Practice 5) as one of the eight core practices of science and engineering that are “essential for all students to learn.” Despite this reference, this inclusion of computing is not as strong as the computer science community had hoped for during the NGSS development process (Computing In The Core, 2012; Massachussets Business Alliance For Education, 2013). Some connections have been shown between the NGSS practices, the NGSS disciplinary core idea “engineering, technology, and applications of science”, and content in the CSTA K-12 Computer Science standards (Lee, 2014). Still, this overlap between computer science content and practices and the NGSS is relatively small.
All of the model course maps provided with the Next Generation Science Standards also include at least three high school courses in science (NGSS Lead States, 2013), which is more science coursework than many states require (Zinth, 2006).
There have been some efforts to develop computer science-related units to embed in science courses that utilize computational thinking concepts (for instance, Horn, Brady, Hjorth, Wagh, & Wilensky, 2014) and efforts to use computer gaming concepts and structures to develop science instructional materials (such as Holbert & Wilensky, 2014). These efforts show potential for bringing computing to scale; these materials are designed to be added to existing STEM courses, requiring only additional tools and training and no additional class time for implementation (Wilensky, Brady, & Horn, 2014). However, they tend to only focus on computational thinking and not the broader range of content that makes up computer science.
Implications and Recommendations For School And District Leaders
The new Next Generation Science Standards provide a forward thinking but challenging blueprint for schools and districts (National Research Council, 2014). While computer science is not emphasized in the NGSS, computation is well established as something that life, physical, and earth scientists do. This presents an opportunity for computer science educators as well as schools and districts. Particularly in districts using a replacement unit strategy (as described in, for instance, Cohen & Hill, 2000) to improve science instruction, selecting some units that incorporate both modern science pedagogy as well as computer science has potential to move things forward.
Considering content, schools and districts are advised to follow principles similar to those of mathematics when considering treating computer science as science courses for graduation or transcript purposes.
- Computer science courses should count as science courses (i.e., called a science course on a transcript) only if the science content is primary focus of the course and computer science is used as a tool for learning the science.
- Computer science courses can supplant a science graduation requirement if it does not take the student off the track of reaching the threshold defined in state standards for college and career readiness.
Computer Science and Foreign Language
Some states, such as Florida (O'Conner, 2014), Kentucky (Wynn, 2014), New Mexico (Boyd, 2014), and Washington (Farivar, 2015), count computer science as a foreign language requirement (or are considering doing so). Some scholars have created verbiage (“logo-as-latin”) to describe the learning of computers in this fashion (Koschmann, 1997).
This perspective is not well endorsed by the computer science community (Stephenson, 2014), as demonstrated by this response from computer science advocacy organization Code.org:
“Spanish has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, with a consistent grammatical and sentence structure. In contrast, a typical computing language has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and the real work is learning how to put these words together to build a complex program” (Hirotaka, 2014).
Implications and Recommendations
School and district leaders are advised to avoid connecting computer science education with foreign language content and classes.
Computer Science and Career and Technical Education
There are generally three types of classes that are categorized as vocational or career-and-technical education at the high school level. The first are family and consumer education classes, including “home economics.” The second are “general labor market preparation” courses, which address content not specific to any occupational area, such as such as typing, keyboarding, introductory technology education. The third are “occupational education” courses, which align to particular careers or jobs (Silverburg, Warner, Fong, & Goodwin, 2004). Enrollments in the first two categories have been declining across the nation for some time (Silverburg et al., 2004).
The Federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 drives all Career and Technical Education (CTE) in the United States. As part of this legislation, states are required to offer “‘career and technical programs of study’ that comprise academic, career, and technical content that prepares students to make successful transitions to postsecondary education and the workplace.” These programs must be in one of sixteen “career clusters,” which are “occupational categories with industry-validated knowledge and skills statements that define what students need to know and be able to do in order to realize success in a chosen field” (U. S. Department of Education, 2008). Two of these career clusters, Information Technology and STEM, are particularly relevant to K-12 education leaders seeking to advance computer science education—as the content in these areas is most connected to computer science (though some have argued that computer science applies to all career clusters) (Seehorn, 2010).
Implications and Recommendations
Many districts are currently involved in efforts to update their career-and-technical education efforts across the board. Given the importance of computer science for the future workforce, this is a sensible place to explore efforts to include computer science at the high school level. That said, courses that focus on general labor market skills—such as keyboarding or Microsoft Office usage—likely do not include the content that would be appropriate for a course that counted as computer science
Boyd, D. (2014, January 28, 2014). Senator: Computer programming is a foreign language. Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved from http://www.abqjournal.com/344034/news/sen-computer-programming-is-a-foreign-language.html
Burdman, P. (2015). Degrees of Freedom: Diversifying math requirements for College readiness and graduation. Retrieved from http://edpolicyinca.org/sites/default/files/PACE 1 08-2015.pdf
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