Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy National Computer Science Education Week!

Mark your calendars!  The week of December 7th is officially National Computer Science Education Week.  I'm a big fan of the idea.  In fact, I wrote a paper in my Argumentation 101 class in college that suggested that every liberal arts student should be required to take an introduction to computer science class.  It was the only paper I got an A on all semester and the English teacher told me that she was actually convinced!

As anyone working in a CS or MIS department knows, enrolment in CS and MIS graduate programs is down dramatically over the past 10 years.  (Enrolment in female students has dropped off particularly steeply!)  So, I'm glad that there's some good publicity going on.

The Information Management website, however, has a ridiculous editorial about the state of affairs, though.  The article suggests:
...there is another powerful factor that steers young people away from what they see as humdrum careers, and that factor began with us, the parents of those who are about to enter the workforce. Specifically, I’m talking about the idea that a growing child “can be anything he or she wants to be.” Now I never heard that from my parents growing up and most of my friends didn’t either, but I know plenty of parents nowadays who tell that awful lie to their kids. And this fantasy is reinforced millions of times daily by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon.
Perhaps I'm younger than the author of this article, but I did grow up with the clear message that I could be anything I want, that I could do anything I put my mind to.  Now, I may not living the rich and famous life of a hugely successful 90's IPO success, but I do love what I do.  I'm passionate about data, information, computers, and that's what I get to do almost every day of my life.  It's great!

Perhaps the other point that the author makes almost in passing is more salient:
In the past, I have speculated that since this generation has grown up with computer technology—much the way my generation grew up with television—computers are just a ho-hum fact of life for them.
I think this is more likely the situation for many students.  When I was growing up, the computers I had access to provided me with the opportunity to examine physically, to take apart, to dissect and gain an almost intuitive understand of just through that physical examination.  Today, I have a dozen far more powerful computers within arms reach at almost any moment, but none of them can easily be disassembled and reassembled by your average 10 year old.

So, I think it's true.  We're most used to computers.  They're less technically accessible and therefore less tempting for many people to examine.  Perhaps some of the best ways to regain interest in computer science and technology is to go back to some of those roots, through programs like elementary school robotics competitions, programming FPGAs, Motorola 68k assembly programming, and building an Apple II from the ground up.  My Palm Pre has an intuitive interface, but programming on it (while not too hard) is not intuitive.  TTL logic and k-maps are intuitive.  Maybe one of the things that we're missing for our modern computer science students is a connection with their intuition.  They see computer science as programming using patterns and frameworks that someone else has built, Googling for code samples to copy and paste, and coding out some spec that someone else wrote.  I don't think most people find that thrilling.  Writing up some chips and praying that the magical blue-smoke doesn't escape -- that's a thrill!

1 comment:

Phil said...

I wouldn't mind reading that class paper!