TITLE: Miscellaneous Notes on Using Computers AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 08, 2009 4:38 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Good Question Last week, I gave a talk on careers in computing to thirty or so high school kids in a math and science program on campus this summer. Because it's hard to make sense out of computing careers if one doesn't even know what computer science is, I started off with half an hour or so talking about CS. Part of that was distinguishing between discovering things, creating things, and studying things. At the end, we had time for the usual question-and-answer session. The first question came from a young man who had looked quite disinterested throughout the talk: What is the most important thing you have discovered or invented? Who says kids don't pay attention? The Age of Fire Yesterday, I took my laptop with me to do advising at freshmen orientation. It allows me to grab course enrollment data of the university web site (processed, but raw enough), rather than look at the print-outs the advising folks provide every morning. With that data and little more than grep and sorting on columns, I can find courses for my students much more easily than thumbing back and forth in the print-outs. And the results are certainly of a higher quality than my thumbing would give. The looks on the other advisors' faces at our table made me think of how a group of prehistoric men must have looked when one of their compatriots struck two rocks together to make fire. Computer Science's Dirty Little Secret An alumnus sent me a link to an MSNBC article about Kodu, a framework for building Xbox-like games aimed at nine-year-olds. I like how Matthew MacLaurin, lead developer, thinks:
MacLaurin ... says he hopes it doesn't just teach programming, but teaches us to appreciate programming as a modern art form.
(Emphasis added.) The piece talks about "the growing importance of user-generated content in gaming" and how most people assume "that all of the creativity in video games takes place in the graphics and art side of the gaming studios, while the programming gets done by a bunch of math guys toiling over dry code. Author Winda Benedetti writes (emphasis added):
I had asked [McLaurin] if [Kodu] was like putting chocolate on broccoli -- a means of tricking kids into thinking the complex world of programming was actually fun. But he insists that's not the case at all. "It's teaching them that it was chocolate the whole time, it just looked like a piece of broccoli," he explains. "We're really saying that programming is the most fun part of creating games because of the way it surprises you. You do something really simple, and you get something really complex and cool coming back at you."
Programming isn't our dirty little secret. It is a shining achievement. Afterthoughts I am still amazed when lay people respond to me using a computer to solve daily problems, as if I have brought a computation machine from the future. Shocking! Yes, I actually use it to compute. The fact that people are surprised even when a computer scientist uses it that way should help us keep in mind just how little people understand what computer science is and what we can do with it. Have an answer to the question, "What is the most important thing you have made?" ready at hand, and suitable for different audiences. When someone asks, that is the moment when you might be able to change a mind. -----