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Teaching the Business of Computer Science

It's almost a general consensus that computer science jobs are growing at a rate faster than the American education system can produce qualified applicants.

But for one cutting-edge high school program, the goal is not merely to get students interested in the subject, but also to arm them with the business skills needed to thrive as entrepreneurs in the modern business climate.

"Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, computer scientists became the employees of business people," said Christopher Starr, a computer science professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and co-founder of the new program at Charleston's private, grades 1-12 Porter-Gaud School. "They exploited their ideas and talents and skills to make money. What we're trying to do now in computer science is to train the computer scientist to get the contexts sufficient in business to hire the businessman to launch [his or her] ideas."

While Starr, who spoke Tuesday at the ISTE 2010 ed-tech conference in Denver, was speaking mainly about how the subject is taught in college, the two-year-old program at Porter-Gaud follows the same logic.

The curriculum, which enrolls high school students for one semester in their freshman through junior years and then for both semesters of their senior year, focuses its third year on teaching students how to succeed as cyber entrepreneurs, and even includes and end-of-year field trip to California's Silicon Valley.

The first two years are no more conventional. Year 1 includes students delving into game design, robotics, and DNA mapping. As for Year 2, students tackle the construction of virtual servers, an e-commerce site, and a peer-to-peer network. The fourth year is actually the most conservative—students enroll in college-level courses and get dual credit from the College of Charleston, a program partner.

"Where this curriculum opens up the door is for the kids that are lovers of history and music and science and art and business education," said Doug Bergman, a computer science teacher at Porter-Gaud. They "recognize that, 'I can excel in that field because of this extra set of computer science skills that I've got.'"

It's that type of broad appeal that might help fill the expanding labor gap and that has filled the Porter-Gaud classrooms. With only two enrolled grades so far, the enrollment is near 30, including 13 girls.

Bergman, Starr, and Phil Zaubi, the Porter-Gaud School's technology director, admit that being private helped forge the creation of the project. And they still needed private donations and grant funding. But they hope to pilot the program in a public school in the near future, and eventually expand beyond that.

"We're trying to envision ways to employ this and distribute this all over high schools in the state of South Carolina," Starr said.

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