Recently I met with the director of youth activities at a local community center in Seattle. We were sitting together in the center’s new computer facility, home to twelve work-stations, discussing ideas for a future program to teach computing skills to high-risk girls. I had been working at the center for one afternoon a week since the beginning of the summer, holding basketball clinics for the girls.
This was the first time I had seen anyone in the computer lab. Carmen, the youth director, opened it up so the two of us could find a quiet place to talk. “I see the computers as more of a distraction than anything else,” she told me. “The kids just want to go to MySpace and play video games.”
From our conversation, I learned that the center has little or no content to teach the kids. The kids already know everything they need to know — and far more than Carmen claims to know — about using the computers, browsing the Internet, sending emails, and downloading games. But as educational tools, as enhancements to their class work, and as aids for their upcoming standardized tests, the computers are not making the grade. Although the hard disks are filled with educational software, the kids rarely stray from using social or purely entertaining applications on the workstations, and no child at the facility knows how to write any kind of computer program.
Current trends indicate that interest in computer science is down. Enrollment numbers in Computer Science departments have dropped significantly in the past decade, since I studied CS at Stanford, and one local (Seattle) college has considered dropping its computer science program altogether due to lack of student interest.
We have produced a generation of users, computer-literate children and young adults, that is far more comfortable in front of a screen and keyboard than past generations; but this generation of users has no idea about how the actual technology they are using works, and no motivation to delve deeper than the provided software…which seems like more of a distraction for them than a tool.
Why were kids in my generation more interested in the science beneath computers? Comparing my computing past with that of my younger brother, Michael, who followed me into the Stanford CS program five years later, may shed some light on the issue.
I started programming at age nine on an Osborne I that my parents bought, used, from my uncle. Our Osborne came with a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a single, text-based fantasy game. I logged my first hundred computer hours playing Adventure, imagining my way through a non-existent maze, figuring out compass directions, and learning the meanings of “various and sundry.” When I finally managed to reach a dead end I couldn’t find my way around (after every possible attempt from my nine-year-old vocabulary,) I decided to make my own game.
My older brother taught me how to write rudimentary BASIC programs. He explained to me what a variable was, walked me through my first FOR-NEXT loop, and then sent me on my way. There was no instruction book and no manual. Before that Osborne was retired four years later, I had figured out how to overwrite my mother’s word processing documents, programmed dozens of really terrible games for my younger brothers to play, and developed card-making software using the block graphics I found in the hard-coded character string function.
Like many of my generation, I grew up on a computer with little or no content, and if I wanted it to play, I had to be creative. I had to make it do what I wanted it to do. I went on to study computer science in college and graduated with a BS from Stanford in 1997.
My youngest brother Michael followed me there, and majored in CS as well. He works for Microsoft now. By the time Michael was nine our family had a game console for our TV and fantasy adventure games with elegant graphics on our Apple IIgs. He grew up playing Nintendo and Bard’s Tale. He had an email account before he was out of high school, and knew how to browse the Internet long before I did.
Unlike me, though, Michael didn’t write a single line of code until college. Michael was an extremely creative kid, but he didn’t bother spending that energy creating loops, routines, and functions. I’m not even sure how he chose his major, but I imagine him tossing a coin or throwing some dice (I would have used a random number generator.) Though he was only five years behind me, Michael was already part of a trend away from the science aspect of computing. I imagine that this trend has only gained momentum in subsequent years, and may play a part in declining number in university enrollment figures. Our different journeys into the computer science field are demonstrative of the generational gap in computing.
What can we do to change the trend — to get more kids interested in the science of computing?
Children are almost always going to choose what feels good over what is good for them: just put a bowl of candy and a bowl of vegetables in front of them and see which empties first. Most computers today are full of brain candy. As adults, parents, potential educators, or just interested parties, every one of us — especially those responsible for creating technologies — needs to brainstorm how to keep the next generation involved in our technology as its creators, and not purely its users.
I am currently involved in a project aimed at teaching computer literacy to pre-teen and teenage girls in the Seattle area, beginning with a single community center. Though it is very much in the planning stage, my aim is to use weekly basketball clinics to bring the girls into the facility and pair an hour of court drills with an hour of computer lab instruction. I am well aware that all of these girls know how to use computers to write their school reports and email their friends; my goal is to get them excited about the science behind the scenes.
I have twelve computer stations, but no manual. Now, how do I turn these girls from users into creators? How do I get them out of MySpace and into ALICE? I guess I’ll have to be creative.
Kate Starbird graduated from Stanford in 1997 with a BS in Computer Science. She recently retired from her first career as a professional basketball player after playing five seasons in the WNBA and five seasons in Europe.