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CS Academy launched by School of Computer Science

Fans of Carnegie Mellon’s ever-mythologized 15-112 class, titled “Fundamentals of Programming,” will be happy to know that its creators, Professor David Kosbie and Professor Mark Stehlik have turned their eyes to another project: the creation of the website CS Academy, a free computer science educational tool aimed at high schoolers.

The project, now generally available for the fall on their website, https://academy.cs.cmu.edu/, hopes to become the link between widely available programming courses aimed at younger kids and the harder computer science courses that start late teens on a track towards programming in a professional capacity. Erin Cawley, the program director for CS Academy, told WESA that while there are resources available to students from K-8, they tend to “drop off” before exposing students to more challenging programming problems.

CS Academy hopes to engage students using graphic and visual based Python programming. In a Carnegie Mellon University press release, Kosbie cited the fact that students often have trouble debugging programs, and that lessons dealing with graphics make it easy for students to see what is going wrong with their code.
The project was piloted in schools over the past couple of semesters, mostly in Western Pennsylvania, a relationship no doubt benefiting from the program direction of Erin Cawley, the founder of the Computer Science Teachers Association of Pittsburgh. Over winter break, CS Academy officially launched, now offering teachers a chance to request a demo on their website.

The gap between beginner and advanced programming instruction is not news to those that study computer science education, and many have tried to address it as part of an attempt to diversify the field of computer science. A 2001 paper by former professor Lenore Blum titled “Women in Computer Science: the Carnegie Mellon Experience” cited an “experience gap” as one of the reasons women drop out of computer science programs.

“Many of the courses either assume students already know the requisite programming language or that they can pick it up on their own,” wrote Blum, noting that this often led women to feel discouraged in the program, since they may not have had the same chances to get exposed to the topic. Findings like this were part of the reason that introductory courses like 15-110 and 15-112 were developed, in the hopes of leveling the playing field. CS Academy, sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly, hopes to address the same problem, not just for women but also for students that go to under-resourced schools.

Introducing a wider base of students to computer science is one goal of computer science educators who hope to expand the body of students seeking degrees, and CS Academy looks to accomplish that by allowing a means for students to explore harder topics before they might be intimidated out of taking AP or hard intro courses. But pipeline issues are only one part of the problem facing those that want to diversify computer science circles. The other challenge to tackle is the culture that these students face once they have decided to pursue this path.