Math, writing, history and…computer science?
A typical list of required courses for a college student today does not include computer science — but should it?
Computer scientists agree that all students should be exposed to computer science.
With the size of the Internet ever-expanding and technological innovations increasing seemingly boundlessly, society is becoming more and more dependent on technology — and simply being able to use it does not cut it.
“Being a smart computer user is like being a smart consumer — the more you understand how it works, the more you can benefit from it,” Marie desJardins, professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), said in an email.
Computational thinking a necessity
In her introductory computer science class for non-majors, desJardins said she emphasizes key concepts, one of which is that computational thinking is, as its core, about problem solving, which is useful for everyone.
“I find that my students often do not really know how to think clearly about a problem, identify the constraints and goals and analyze different alternative solutions,” said desJardins. “Computer science requires you to do all of these things, and to do them very clearly and precisely because computers only understand clear and precise instructions.”
She said that these skills translate quite naturally to real life.
“It is important that we as a society understand just how important computing has become, and how essential it is for the next generation to really understand and be able to use computers effectively — not just as passive users (players of computer games, users of social networks), but as active creators of new technology,” said desJardins.
desJardins, who is also a university liaison for the Maryland chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), said that in almost every profession, it has become incredibly valuable and important to have computing skills.
“Biologists need to be able to simulate and predict dynamic behaviors of systems like gene regulatory networks,” said desJardins. “Graphic designers need to be able to design websites and embed active applications. Medical researchers need to be able to understand and develop tools to aid in diagnosis and treatment.”
Boston University Professor Dave Sullivan said that computational thinking should be a fundamental skill for everyone, referring to Carnegie Mellon Professor Jeannette Wing’s 2006 Communications of the ACM article.
“A wide range of disciplines are being transformed by computational approaches,” Sullivan said in an email. “More generally, exposure to computer science gives students a better understanding of the information-centric world in which we live and work, and prepares them for jobs in a variety of fields.”
In fact, students are automatically at a disadvantage without a foundational knowledge of computer science, just like one has to have a foundation in math, physics, chemistry or English literature, CSTA Executive Director Chris Stephenson said.
“Whether or not people are interested in becoming computer scientists…so much of our lives right now is imbued with technology,” Stephenson said. “Everything we do [and] every interaction we have almost, even with our families these days, is mediated through technology. And the reality is that, if we don’t know how it works and really understand the science underneath it, then it’s really hard for us to make knowledgeable choices when it comes to how we use the technology and how we choose the technology we want to use.”
CSTA — a membership organization that promotes and supports the teaching of computer science and other computing disciplines primarily in K-12 and works very closely with its partners in colleges and universities — frequently deals with people in the industry, said Stephenson.
“At one point recently, Microsoft told us they had 5,000 jobs…they can’t fill because there are not enough students coming out of our colleges and universities with computer science degrees,” she said.
According to a 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the United States faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data, or large data sets.
New research projects that by 2018, the nation may face a 50-60% gap between supply and the requisite demand of deep analytic talent, i.e., people with advanced training in statistics or machine learning, according to the report.
A contributing factor is that people wrongly assume students are learning these skills, said Stephenson.
“Parents think that just because they’re using technology, they understand it, which is not true. Administrators think that just because there are computers in the schools, the students are learning computer science,” said Stephenson. “So it’s like saying, ‘I know they’re learning chemistry because we have beakers in our school.’ It makes no sense.”
She said this also explains why computer science has not been added to the new common core curriculum.
Despite the leadership core of teacher advocates working in several states to promote the inclusion of computer science, Stephenson said it is a hard task to add content to the required courses that students take.
“We’re committed to doing it, and CSTA is in this for the long haul, but some days it seems like two steps forward and one step back,” said Stephenson.
To make more of a difference, Stephenson said others should ask whether students are getting access to courses that will prepare them for the jobs that will exist in the future.
“I think parents, the public [and people in the industry] have an amazing capacity to actually advocate positively in education,” she said. “Sometimes that means a lot more than a group like ours working away as well.”
A hidden gem
Stephenson said that the CSTA has communicated often with the National Security Agency (NSA), who is profoundly concerned because the agency needs skilled people who have the ability to work to protect and strengthen the cyber infrastructure.
Because all the systems are so dependent on computing, it needs people who know how to keep those systems safe, she said, adding that this is “why students really do themselves a disservice if they don’t at least take one course and see if they like it.”
Similarly, Sullivan said that taking a computer science course can be a really enjoyable experience.
“Computer science combines the challenges of problem solving with the pleasures of designing and creating something — whether it be a program for analyzing data or playing a game, or an algorithm for solving an interesting problem,” said Sullivan.
UMBC Professor Penny Rheingans said she went to college expecting to major in something in the social sciences, but after taking a computer science course her first semester, she discovered something she loved.
“I found computing to be both incredibly frustrating and incredibly addicting,” Rheingans said in an email. “I love the challenge of building something to solve a problem and the satisfaction of figuring out why my creation isn’t working and fixing it.”
Steps toward knowledge for all
Recently, however, prestigious universities across the country, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, have been offering free online courses.
Harvard and MIT announced early this May their nonprofit partnership called edX. A first set of courses is scheduled to be announced soon and is scheduled to start this fall, according to the edX press release.
Although these free online courses — not just in computer science, but in everything from physics to foreign languages to women’s gender studies — do not offer credit, qualified college professors teach them.
Stanford lecturer Nick Parlante said he just finished a free online computer science course geared for people with zero prior experience through Coursera.
“The response from the students has been extremely positive — basically it’s a version of a class I teach at Stanford, and it’s on the internet for free,” Parlante said. “For myself, if I put together a particular lecture or example that I think is really great, then it’s going out to tens of thousands of people. People mostly go in to teaching to reach and help people, so scaling up like that is incredible.”
Parlante said that they are still the early stages in terms of online-education technology and business, but he predicts that high quality materials will continue to be available for free.
“Ultimately, distributing material to thousands of people is just not that expensive, so ‘free’ is a plausible system,” said Parlante, adding that there may be add-ons students can pay for though, such as a formal exam that tests and certifies the knowledge.
David Evans, vice president of education and professor at Udacity, one of the several websites that offer free university-level courses, said that he believes it is very important for students to take at least one computer science course, which teaches students to think in a powerful and different way.
“To understand the world, you need to understand computing and programming,” Evans, who is also a computer science professor at University of Virginia, said in an email. “Without understanding computers and how they are programmed, much of the world will increasingly seem like magic.”
Computer programs are powerful tools to accomplish your goals, and being able to create or customize your own tools can help you work more effectively to accomplish what you set out to do, said Rheingans.
desJardins said that technology has changed incredibly fast just in her lifetime.
“Inevitably, by the time today’s college students are middle-aged, technology will be unimaginably faster, more powerful and more integrated into our daily lives,” said desJardins, “and the people who understand how it works are the ones who will be helping society to take advantage of it and use it to improve people’s lives.”
While Steve Jobs famously talked about computers as bicycles for the mind 20 years ago, computers today are far more powerful and connected worldwide as “super-tanker-sized, hypersonic spaceships of the mind,” said Evans.
“Without learning to program, you can still ride them if you are willing to remove your shoes at the security checkpoint and go where the pilot wants to go,” said Evans, “but if you want to be the one flying, you need to learn about computing.”
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