TITLE: You Don't Want to Program?
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: August 20, 2004 2:05 PM
DESC: new majors and applied computing
blogged about programming.
Today, I advised severally newly-declared computer science majors.
Not a single one of them wants to learn to program. Most
want to take our new Network and System Administration major.
Others are interested in bioinformatics or other applied areas.
Some of these incoming freshmen know that they have to do a certain
amount of programming in order to reach their goals, and they're
okay with that. They'll humor us along the way. But others seemed
genuinely concerned that we expect them to learn how to program
before teaching them how to set up Windows networks and troubleshoot
systems -- so much so that they immediately began to explore their
alternatives at the university.
I read occasionally about problems with science and mathematics
education in the United States, but I wonder if any discipline
is quite like computer science. We go through cycles of having
an incredibly popular major followed by having a major that few
students want to take. But at no time do very many of our students
come with the slightest inkling of what computer science is
or the role that programming plays in it. We seem to start with
a student body that has no idea what they are in for. Some students
must feel sideswiped when the truth hits them.
This state of affairs helps to explain why intro CS courses have
rather high drop rates compared to similar courses in other departments.
The university should consider this when comparing numbers.
What can we do about this? The move toward "breadth-first" curricula
a decade ago aimed to address this problem, and I think such an approach
has some benefits. (It also has some drawbacks.) But it would perhaps
be better if we could address the problem earlier, if we could somehow
expose high school students to a more accurate view of computing
beyond the applications they see and use in so many contexts. Computing
is a fundamental component of the modern world, yet it is still largely
a mystery to the public at large.
This fall, I hope to teach a six-week unit on computing concepts at
my daughters' school, to sixth graders. Maybe I can get a feeling for
what is possible then. But, here in the trough of our enrollment
cycle, encounters like the one I had this morning spook me.