Beyond Pythagoras - The impact of Computer Science on STEM retention and student development

By: George K. Thiruvathukal , IEEE member and  professor of Computer Science at Loyola University Chicago

As an educator, I am frequently asked about the role of computer science and STEM. Although computer science subject matter can serve as a main driver of STEM curriculum, the overarching challenge is that we do not implement computer science early enough in a student’s life. Ultimately, pre-high school experiences for students are crucial to the development of critical skills that will better position students for the job market. The exposure to computer science as early as possible shapes your thinking about the world.

By the time a child reaches high school, he or she will already have been exposed to a number of career opportunities. For example, students may be pre-disposed earlier in life to pursue career paths in the medical or legal fields. For students in my generation, you were lucky to be exposed to computer science or engineering since many of these good career prospects were largely off the radar of high school counselors. Incorporating computer science into education programs early on will improve student retention in the STEM field. In fact, involving computer science will allow for students to view STEM related tasks as more fun and memorable. For example, I see a great opportunity to use robots as a means to provide more integrative experiences to kids, something that is simply not possible when other subjects are taught in isolation. 

Although we often think of robotics as otherworldly and created by computer nerds, they can also serve as a conduit for teaching many other subjects. For example, you can learn about electricity, mechanics and mathematics by working with robots. We all know that the distance traveled by a wheel is based on number of rotations times Pi times the diameter of the wheel. Robots bring this calculation to life in a way that Euclid and Pythagoras probably never imaged, let alone the Persians who were so instrumental in creating the wheel, as we know it.

Lastly, robotics can serve as a conduit for STEM, because it is one of the few examples I have seen that challenges the STEM definition (Many variants of STEM are being proposed as I write this, one of which is STEAM that includes A=Art).For example, when you design/build robots, you are also involving art (many design schools place great emphasis on art, especially for constructing prototypes). In our robotics programs, which unfortunately are limited to after school, we see how robotics emphasizes many subject areas that remain important. Technology and engineering do not come at the exclusion of other subjects. Rather, they simply help to make other subjects better.

Teaching computer science at an early stage is extremely important to students developing skills for the job market. For example, students that gain a head start on learning tools like Excel in their early variants (e.g. VisiCalc) can gain a leg up on others when it comes to understanding data—something that is not just of value to computer scientists. Ultimately, having fluency with computers and being able to use them to solve problems is necessary for success in everything else. It’s a form of literacy that should be on par with every other core subject: reading, writing, mathematics and science. Employment prospects remain stronger than ever for students, especially here in the United States. At my own institution (Loyola University Chicago), year after year I see students finding jobs in fields such as traditional software development/engineering, consulting and research. Ultimately, companies want to hire U.S. graduates.

However, our universities cannot graduate enough of them. At Loyola, despite a rock solid program, the vast majority of our students still study other “tracked” subjects such as biology or humanities. This is an example of why pre-high school experiences are so important. Computer science is for everyone. All of us are or will soon be touched by it, and much like when you study science or literature, you are probably going to want to have an idea of how it works. Not everyone will become a master in a subject that they study. This is true in mathematics, literature and more. However, the exposure to computer science as early as possible shapes your thinking about the world, regardless of whether you ultimately pursue a position in the field or not. With computer science well on its way to expanding our understanding of the world—and augmenting our own capabilities (e.g., machine learning), we need to establish it once and for all as a form of literacy and not relegate it to a single letter in an oddly-chosen acronym (STEM). Even if we do, we might want to make sure we add the right letters.

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