Resparking Innovation in Computing Education

Peter J. Denning, Investigator

In 2007 the National Science Foundation, Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), launched a major initiative to transform undergraduate computing education in the US. They called the program CPATH, for CISE Pathways to Revitalized Computing Education.

CPATH was founded in response to the decline of enrollments in undergraduate computing, down by 50% since 2001. The decline has been a paradox to many because the demand for computing people in the labor market exceeds the computing degree pipeline output by 50%. CPATH sponsors four kinds of grants: (1) community building, (2) evaluation, adoption, and extension, (3) transformation, and (4) CISE distinguished education fellow (CDEF).

In June 2007, NSF CISE announced two distinguished education fellow awards: to Owen Astrachan of Duke University and Peter Denning of Naval Postgraduate School. Each recipient received an NSF grant to pursue a project that would stimulate new thinking about computing education.

This is my project web site.


The Project

My hypothesis is that the "operating model" for computing education, which was formed and adopted in the 1960s, has become obsolete. It was once a major education innovation; now it stifles innovation. My project is exploring alternatives that would produce a new model. For details, see

Project Summary (2007)
Project Proposal (2007)
SIGCSE'08 Proposal, Self-Image (2008)
Project Mindmap (Sep 2007)

Through two or three workshops, we will explore alternatives and flesh them out into action plans for computing educators to consider and adopt. The ACM Education Board will be actively involved in providing support structures for those who adopt. We will examine:

Great Principles of Computing. Complete the development of a GP framework that represents the computing body of knowledge as fundamental scientific principles. This alternative view exposes considerable scientific depth in computing and demonstrates that computing is a natural science. Supporting materials:

GP Project Web Site
Great Principles of Computing, CACM, Nov 2003
Computing is a Natural Science, CACM, July 2007

Recognizing Innovators. Recognize and support young innovators in computing departments of university and pre-college schools. Establish a portal to help them find each other, and help others learn about their work. Provide them with coaching on the foundational practices of innovation. Supporting materials:

Innovation as Language Action, CACM, May 2006
Technology and Transformation course web site

Project Based Learning. Many educators have been interested in project-based learning, where students learn mostly from involvement in projects rather than from classroom lecturers. Early examples have been popular with students at the Danish universities Roskilde and Aalborg, and in the US universities Olin and Neumont. Bring interested parties together to discuss how this might be done on a wider scale.


Activities in 2008

In Fall 2007, my project team and I decided that we would be more likely to have an impact if we held one larger workshop instead of three smaller ones, and if we organized the workshop to draw on the creativity of the participants. Because of our prior positive experience with summit conferences in the Navy, we decided that a summit would be the most effective way to produce some sort of movement in the community. At the time, we called it a summit on the great principles of computing.

We organized a top-notch steering committee (our "design team"); we met in March, 2008. We agreed on a theme for the conference and decide who to invite. We recognized that the summit needed to draw people from all sectors of the field, and all age groups; the steering committee reflected this diversity.

The design team settled on the conference threme "Rebooting Computing: The Magic and Beauty of Computer Science". We drafted a manifesto, got a domain name, established a web site, and created an initial invitation list. The web site,, shows the names of our design team and our manifesto.

We spent the rest of the year getting organized and inviting people. By the end of 2008 we reached the conference limit of 220 people. The venue was the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. ACM joined us a cooperating partner and provided a listserv. In the six weeks preceding the summit some very spirited discussions arose in the listserv about women in computing, definition of computing, image of computing, and a few other hot topics. All these conversations were captured and are available in the community section of the conference web site.

The post-conference focus is on helping the action groups stay in communication and work to fulfill their missions. The community area of the website has discussion forums for the groups. Everyone is welcome to comment in the discussions and to join the activities.

Rebooting Website
Rebooting Action Groups
NPS news article
CACM news article
2008 Annual Report

Activities in 2009-2010

The summit was held January 12-14, 2009, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. About 220 people from diverse sections of the computing field attended. The attendees included about 70 women (35%), 20 students (from K-12 to PhD candidates), 25 industry, 20 K-12 teachers, and 30 international. The international representatives came from Australia, Singapore, Japan, Scandanavia, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Dubai, and New Zealand. The summit produced two principal outcomes:

After the summit we worked to support the action groups by providing a community conversation space on the website, keeping track of group leaders and members, and staying in contact with group leaders.

We conducted a follow-up survey of group leaders in December 2010 and again in March 2011. To our delight, we learned that over half the groups (11 to be exact) accomplished their missions, and two more made good but partial progress. In January 2009, at the summit's conclusion, we told ourselves privately that we would be doing well if three or four groups produced results. These groups far exceeded our private expectations.

Not only that, but we succeeded in getting conversations going between groups who had no regular communication before. There are now numerous joint activities under way between university faculty and K-12 teachers. We do not want to take credit for all that, but we are glad we were able to break the ice.

We also note that the terminology about joy, magic, and beauty has become fashionable and permeates the public documents on the Advanced Placement (AP) initiative.

You can click here to obtain a copy of our final report.