In Defense of Computer Science

Mar 26, 2012

This is an open letter that was sent to administrators and Board members of the Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District, but I believe it has relevance far beyond my own hometown so I am reposting it here.

To Whom it May Concern,

I recently learned that the HF-L school district will no longer be offering a computer science class for the 2012-13 school year. This follows a decision to eliminate the AP computer science class in 2010, which means that for the first time in at least a decade, HF-L will not offer any computer science course. As a graduate of this program, I am deeply saddened by this news.

Allow me to provide a little background about myself to give my thoughts some context. I grew up in the Honeoye Falls - Lima school district and graduated from HF-L high school in 2005. During my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take AP Computer Science under the instruction of Dave Ghidiu. I took and received top marks on both the A and AB Computer Science exams, was the first of several students to help instruct the class as an informal student teaching assistant, and subsequently obtained a great internship at a local e-learning company during my final semester. Due in large part to these experiences, I was accepted into and attended MIT, where I graduated with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering in 2009. I have since been an early employee of several successful technology startups and most recently began the process of founding my own company.

With that in mind, I find it very disturbing that across the country, schools are cutting introductory and AP computer science classes. These decisions are partly due to budgetary cuts, and partly due to shrinking class sizes. However, there are many other less obvious factors involved. Unlike many other core subjects, there is no computer science track that a student can follow through middle and high school. Thus it often falls to teachers to go out and “recruit” students to be in their class. Additionally, since there is no mandatory state test for computer science, students see little incentive to take on the additional work, and guidance counselors see little reason to encourage them to do so.

While I understand these challenges, I think they fail to take into account the broader impact of this curriculum. Computer science and information technology are playing an ever increasing role in our daily lives, powering everything from our smart phones and laptops to our social networks and search engines. As computer science becomes more essential in our professional lives, recent college grads in computer related disciplines are more highly in demand than ever before. According to U.S. Newsi, no less than five of the top 10 best jobs of 2012 require strong computer science backgrounds. All of these are high paying, high satisfaction careers, with strong growth potential. According to the US Department of Laborii, computer occupations will account for over 1.3 million new jobs by 2020, with over half of those coming directly from software development and information technology positions. By depriving students of this essential curriculum, we make it harder for them to gain admission to computer science and engineering programs at top colleges, and to later compete for these jobs.

Beyond the numbers, I see far more tangible arguments for continuing to teach computer science in our classrooms. Unlike many subjects, computer science doesn’t require expensive textbooks or costly resources for lab experiments. The only thing you need is a computer and an internet connection, two things which are ubiquitous in schools these days. Computer science is also far more collaborative and hands on than most subjects, allowing classes of all sizes to accomplish amazing things by working (and learning) together. Further, I can think of no better engine for students to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills. In computer science you simply cannot rely on rote memorization of facts and formulas - you must truly understand the concepts and structures of the programs you are creating.

It is my hope to start a conversation at HF-L about the importance of computer science in our students’ education. Administrators, I encourage you to take a closer look at how we are currently allocating resources to programs like computer science, so that they do not continue to fall through the cracks. Teachers and guidance counselors, you can help too, by encouraging your students to sign up for computer science classes. After all, this curriculum has far reaching implications for anyone interested in science, math, and engineering. For all of these fields, programming experience is quickly becoming a desired skill, if not an outright requirement. Lastly, (but certainly not least), students. Those of you who are interested in computer science, speak up! Get your classmates excited about it and help them understand why it’s important to them. Talk to your teachers and parents and get them involved too. But whatever you do, don’t be complacent. After all, it’s your future!

I look back on the opportunities I’ve been given over the years and I’m consistently amazed at how fortunate I’ve been. Without the support of the HF-L faculty and administration my life would be indescribably different and for that I am forever grateful. I am certainly not alone in this belief. It is in this spirit that I call upon not just the faculty and administration, but the entire HF-L community, to revive the computer science curriculum, so that this generation of students does not miss out on their chance to participate in what is perhaps the greatest technological revolution of our time.

Trevor Rundell ‘05

Update: The district has sent this response to parents which I have reposted below. I disagree with the characterization of this letter as a “rumor”, but regardless, I appreciate the official response.

Dear Parents,

It has come to our attention that a Facebook posting is claiming that HF-L has eliminated Computer Science in the 2012-13 budget. Many of our former students have gone on to achieve success in this career field and are, understandably, concerned with this rumor. We want to provide you the facts.

  • There has been no discussion through the budget planning process to eliminate Computer Science.
  • Computer Science remains a course offering in the 2012-13 Program of Studies and will remain in again for 2013-14.
  • Based on student interest, only 8 students requested Computer Science for 2012-13.
  • The minimum enrollment needed to run a course is 12 students.
  • The High School plans to offer this course on an every two or three year rotation. In this way, all students will have access to the course and sufficient enrollment is more likely to occur.

Michelle Kavanaugh, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools
Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District