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Ties to computer science can be found in every school subject

Juni 24th, 2022

The IPN and Kiel University have established a research group on computer science education.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Mühling is head of the newly founded joint research group Computer Science Education at the IPN. It is a joint project of the IPN and Kiel University (CAU). In its statement on the perspectives of computer science in Germany in 2020, the German Science Council recommended that the inclusion of the STEM subject computer science at the IPN makes sense in terms of content and is logical as the IPN is an internationally recognized, interdisciplinary center of scientific and mathematical educational research. The IPN Journal talks to Andreas Mühling about the new research group and about computer science as a school subject.

IPN Journal: The IPN is pleased that with the recently finalized cooperation agreement between Kiel University and the IPN, in the future scientific projects will be worked on together in a computer science education research group. Which research questions will you focus on first?

Andreas Mühling: There are many exciting questions in our field that have yet to be answered. One fundamental issue, for example, is empirically based competency models that describe the development of knowledge and skills in computer science in a structured way. Specifically, the process-related competencies, very important in computer science, require attention. The contribution of computer science to general problem-solving skills and digital literacy is another important issue. My research group, which has existed at CAU for several years, is also specifically concerned with students' perceptions of artificial intelligence and approaches to programming as important aspects of computer science teaching.

IPN Journal: In addition to joint research projects, a focal point for the research group is providing impetus for the training and continuing education of computer science teachers in Schleswig-Holstein and beyond the state borders. What is the situation regarding computer science teachers nationwide? Are there enough teachers trained in computer science?

Andreas Mühling: That depends on how important the subject of computer science is or should be in schools. All German states offer elective courses - even if not in all school types - and presumably there are enough teachers for this situation. However, as soon as the subject becomes a compulsory subject in all types of schools - which is currently the case in only a few federal states - there will of course be a need for additional teachers, who do not yet exist. Any state that sets out on this path thus needs short-term solutions for the further qualification of teachers and long-term concepts for undergraduate education and continuous professional development. Computer science was always characterized by a dynamic development, which is naturally also transferred to a school subject: The subject expertise acquired during studies is limited in lifespan. Topics and technologies develop quickly, and of course you want to be able to respond to these trends and developments in school, at least to some extent. You can currently see this, for example, in artificial intelligence, which has become very prominent and also appears, for example, in the new subject requirements of the state - an additional need for further training then arises here.

IPN Journal: Building digital literacy in schools is not just a task for the subject of computer science, but for all subjects. Do the teachers of other subjects have sufficient computer science knowledge for this, or do they need concentrated efforts in the area of teacher training?

Andreas Mühling: A change in thinking is clearly necessary here as well. Just as comprehensive "digital education" in schools can only exist in conjunction with computer science, this aspect also needs consideration - at least for a while - at the university in teacher training programs and in continuing education in other subjects. At some point, a compulsory subject in computer science will create a situation in which the foundations have already been laid at school and can then be built upon in the course of study.

IPN Journal: What proportion of the teacher training program is devoted to computer science for students who have chosen other subject combinations?

Andreas Mühling: You can answer this question from two sides. Almost every science today is influenced by computer science. However, computer science courses often do not find their way into the curricula of teacher training programs because other - one could say more "classical" - modules are offered there. To what extent this will change in the future is an exciting question, but ultimately only each subject area can decide for itself. Of course, media education is an important part of the teacher training program. However, this does not usually cover computer science. Some universities in Germany, including my research group, are currently developing courses in this area - most of which are extracurricular, of course. At CAU, we hope to achieve greater commitment by linking this to the courses on teaching methodologies.

IPN Journal: In Schleswig-Holstein, the subject of computer science will be introduced as a compulsory subject in lower secondary schools as of the 2022/23 school year. In other German states, computer science is already compulsory or will soon be. What was the situation like before with regard to the subject of computer science in schools in Germany? To what extent was the subject taught at all?

Andreas Mühling: The idea that computer science content should have a place in school has been around for a very long time. Since the 1970s at the latest, algorithms are something that took place in school - mostly in the context of mathematics lessons - and then became established as a subject in the elective area - as is still the case today in the majority of the German states. In the course of the ever increasing importance of computer systems, the demands on school computer science became more diverse. Suddenly, typical application software had to be addressed, as well as the basic operation of a PC or the dangers of the Internet. This then led to various subject teaching approaches, which put the actual core of computer science more in the center again, without excluding these diverse subject areas. Interestingly, today a very similar discussion is happening again when it comes to the role of computer science for digital education.

IPN Journal: Today, dealing with digitally represented information and mastering information and communication systems are considered just as important as the traditional cultural skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. One of the aims of computer science as a school subject is to give students an insight into how the information technology that surrounds them everywhere works. How do the students themselves see the subject of computer science?

Andreas Mühling: This is really exciting, because it's basically about two areas: How does information technology actually work and what do you do as a computer scientist? Various studies have been done on the first area, and the images are actually very ambiguous. What exactly happens in a computer, how the Internet actually works, what secure communication means - children and teenagers often have only very rudimentary ideas about these issues. Then of course, when it comes to the subject itself, they are also influenced by the media. "Hacking" or "coding" in a dark basement are typical images encountered in early lessons.

IPN Journal: Women are heavily underrepresented in professions related to computer science. If this is to change, we need to get more girls interested in computer science at school. For example, could more girls be attracted to the subject of computer science if at an early stage a link were made between computer science and teaching languages? After all, girls are often said to have a greater interest in language subjects than boys.

Andreas Mühling: Of course, this is a very important topic and also speaks for a compulsory subject, which should not only be at the end of secondary school. Only then can the subject be introduced to girls specifically at a time when their interests can still develop. Certainly, lessons must be designed accordingly. Yes, teachers still have some catching up to do in this area, for example, with regard to the appropriate selection of tasks or the presentation of female role models. The connection to programming is actually very exciting. Studies have identified both math and language skills as predictors of programming success. At the same time, the idea that programming is a "communication process" is a well-known misconception. In the end, it is not so much about programming per se, but about how you design it and what you use it for. By giving students a meaningful goal, perhaps even one they can choose for themselves, and a well-structured approach to it, you're more likely to get female students excited. Computer science has more creative and communicative parts than the typical picture mentioned above would suggest.

IPN Journal: The same is probably true for student teachers. The subject combination of computer science and German is relatively rare, but it would make sense. What do you think?

Andreas Mühling: At CAU we actually have a relatively wide range of subject combinations, and the "dominance" of mathematics as a combined subject is not as strong as at other locations. However, one cannot deny the existence of mathematical aspects in computer science, which probably deters some and makes them opt for a different combination. That said, I am glad to see a diverse student body, as it also brings fresh perspectives to the subject didactics. One definitely finds tie-ins for computer science in every other school subject.

IPN Journal: Thank you very much for talking to us.

Profile

Prof. Dr. Andreas Mühling was appointed head of the computer science education department in Kiel in 2016. After studying and earning his doctorate at the TU Munich, he accepted an offer to work at the CAU and, in the meantime, at the IPN in Kiel. He is particularly attracted to his field by the many unanswered questions and the opportunity to play an active role in shaping modern computer science education.