TITLE: Making Things Worse in the Introductory Course AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 30, 2006 5:51 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Reading Physics Face over at Uncertain Principles reminded me of a short essay I wrote a few months ago. Computer scientists get "the face", but for different reasons. Fewer people take computer science courses, in high school or college, so we don't usually get the face because of bad experiences in one of our courses. We get the face because people have had bad experiences using technology. (On the flip side, at least physicists don't have to listen to complaints like "Gravity didn't work for me yesterday, but it seems to be working okay right now. Why can't you guys make things work all the time?" or "Why are there so many different ways I can exert force on an object? That's so confusing!") But the main thrust of Chad's article struck a chord with me. A physics education group at the University of College Park found that introductory physics courses cause student expectations about physics -- about the nature of physics as an intellectual activity -- to deteriorate rather than improve! In every group, students left their intro physics thinking less like a physicist, not more. I know of no such study of introductory CS courses (if you do, please let me know), but I suspect that many of our courses do the same thing. For students who leave CS 1 or CS 2 unhappy or with an inaccurate view of the discipline, their primary image of computing is an overemphasis on programming drudgery. I've written several times here in the last year or so about how we might make our intro courses more engaging -- make them about something, more than "just programming" -- via the use of engaging problems from the "real world", maybe even with a domain-specific set of applications. I notice that Owen Astrachan and his colleagues at Duke are presenting a paper at SIGCSE in early March on using the science of networks as a motivating centerpiece for CS 1. Whatever the focus, we need to helps students see that computing is about concepts bigger than a for-loop. In the 1980s, we saw a "breadth-first" curriculum movement that aimed to give students a more accurate view of the discipline in their first year or two, but it mostly died out from lack of interest -- and the logistical problem that students do to master programming before they can go very far in most CS programs. I don't have any new answers, but seeing that physics has documented this problem with their introductory courses makes me wonder even more about the state of science education at the university. -----