The teaching of computer science

Kids & Computers

Kids & Computers

Today’s ACM TechNews includes an article on CMU trying to buck trends of having few women in Computer Science. I agree wholeheartedly.

However, before we even get there, computer science is seriously in need of polished publicity. I have talked with several undergraduates and high school students recently and encouraged them to take up computer science. In general, most of them were impressed when they heard that I majored in Computer Science. They thought that it is pretty cool as a major. However, when I asked them whether they are considering (especially the high school students) to major in computer science, the response I got was roughly this: no. “Why not?” They replied back that computer science involve lots of programming and they think that programming is hard, really hard. They also strongly equate computer science with programming and only programming. I do believe that programming is not easy, especially at the beginning, but it is not harder than, say, solving difficult physics questions, or designing chemistry experiment to confirm a hypothesis. (I was lucky to be introduced to programming, with LOGO and Basic—yes, Basic, unfortunately—in late elementary school; but most of these people have never touched any programming language before.) Few of them also think that programming is geeky, something that I would never refute; I think being geeky is cool.

Furthermore, even if programming were taught in schools before university, I have a strong feeling that they are being taught wrongly. Instead of being taught to appreciate the beauty of programming (recursion, abstraction, closure, memoization, etc.), teachers were more focused on getting the syntax right. That, in itself, is not too bad. However, the choice of language really do reveal the weakness of the method. Teaching C++ or Java as a first programming language is definitely not a good idea. These languages are very thick with syntax. Example to the point, I have seen loops being taught as a syntax; as for its concept, teachers keep reiterating that it is used to make a particular code loops over and over until the condition turns to become false. The explanation is correct. On the other hand, such explanation rarely extract the awe and understanding of the power of loop construct.

(Granted, at high school level, I am only familiar with Cambridge ‘A’ Level syllabus for Computing, which uses C/C++, I might have too narrow a viewpoint, or even outdated.)

So the first thing we should straighten out is to clean up the way programming should be taught to students. I would start with Javascript (hey, something that can be applied right away on their own websites is cool and fun!), Python, or Scheme. (Yes, you’re right, I think type system only make teaching programming more convoluted without offering much direct benefits.) Picking good teachers is no longer optional. The aim should be to make students appreciate computer science as a diverse, exciting, and fun field. It should definitely not be aimed to teach students to be proficient in one (or, worse, two) programming language. Probably introducing them at younger age would make it even more effective, as students get higher exposure to it and the curriculum gets more refined as it is harder to teach the younger students. (In fact, it is probably more rational to teach visual programming technique. About half a year ago, I watched a Google Tech Talk on tangible functional programming, where the concept of value, pair, and function/lambda is translated into intuitive visual system that allows even stronger form of composability.)

Certainly, putting some into good publicity will not hurt. Though I do think that we should put more effort into integrating computer science into early education (just like other sciences) to let the younger generation figures out how suitable is the major for themselves, before the stigma attached to CS becomes too deeply rooted in them.

Acknowledgment: Photo was published by shapeshift under Creative Commons (Attribution & Share-Alike); link to flickr page.

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