TITLE: Looking Forward to Time Working AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 29, 2009 11:39 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

In real life there is no such thing as algebra.

-- Fran Lebowitz

At this time next week, I will be on my way to ChiliPLoP for a working session. Readers here know how much I enjoy my annual sojourn to this working conference, but this year I look forward to it with special fervor. First, my day job the last few months -- the last year, really -- has been heavier than usual with administrative activities: IT task force, program review, budget concerns. These are all important tasks, with large potential effects on my university, my department, and our curriculum and faculty. But they are not computer science, and I need to do some computer science. Second, I am still in a state of hopeful optimism that my year-long Running Winter is coming to an end. I put in five runs this week and reached 20 miles for the first time since October. The week culminated this morning in a chilly, hilly 8 miles on a fresh dusting of snow and under a crystal clear blue sky. ChiliPLoP is my favorite place to run away from home. I never leave Carefree without being inspired, unless I am sick and unable to run. Even if I manage only two short runs around town, which is what I figure is in store, I think that the location will do a little more magic for me. Our hot topic group will be working at the intersection of computer science and other disciplines, stepping a bit farther from mainstream CS than it has in recent years. We all see the need to seek something more transformative than incremental, and I'd like to put into practice some of the mindset I've been exploring in my blog the last year or so. The other group will again be led by Dave West and Dick Gabriel, and they, too, are thinking about how we might re-imagine computer science and software development around Peter Naur's notion of programming as theory building. Ironically, I mentioned that work recently in a context that crosses into my hot topic's focus. This could lead to some interesting dinner conversation. Both hot topics' work will have implications for how we present programming, software development, and computer science to others, whether CS students are professionals in other disciplines. Michael Berman (who recently launched his new blog) sent a comment on my Sweating the Small Stuff that we need to keep in mind whenever we want people to learn how to do something:
I think that's an essential observation, and one that needs to be designed into the curriculum. Most people don't learn something until they need it. So trying to get students to learn syntax by teaching them syntax and having them solve toy problems doesn't teach them syntax. It's a mistake to think that there's something wrong with the students or the intro class -- the problem is in the curriculum design. I learned algebra when I took trig, and trig when I took calculus, and I learned calculus in my physics class and later in queueing theory and probability. (I never really learned queueing theory.)
One of the great hopes of teaching computation to physicists, economists, sociologists, and anyone else is that they have real problems to solve and so might learn the tool they need to solve them. Might -- because we need to tell them a story that compels them to want to solve them with computation. Putting programming into the context of building theories in an applied discipline is a first step. (Then we need to figure out the context and curriculum that helps CS students learn to program without getting angry...) -----