Sunday, December 18, 2005

Computer science vs programming

Via the CRA, an article that purports to be about the dwindling number of women computer scientists in the field, but is really about much more:
Some computer scientists fear that they may be going in the same direction. They view the dearth of women as symptomatic of a larger failure in their field, which has recently become less attractive to promising young men, as well. Women are ''the canaries in the mine," said Harvard computer science professor Barbara J. Grosz.
The article highlights geometer Diane Souvaine of Tufts, and her work in developing a curriculum that focuses more on the science than the computer in computer science. It makes a point that we in the field are all familiar with, but that I have never seen explained in the media:
Introductory classes zeroed in on programming and other technical aspects of the field, rather than explaining big ideas or talking about how computing can impact society, many professors say. That approach led to a misconception among students that computer science is the same thing as computer programming. Computer scientists say that view shortchanges the field, which is far broader and more intellectually rich. It is applied math and design, they say; it is about modeling human behavior and thinking about the simplest way to accomplish a complex task.
The other point the article makes that I really don't agree with is that a focus on programming and technical aspects of computers is what attracted male programmers (read "nerds") to the field, to the exclusion of females. The implication of course is that if computer science education were focused more on problem solving and "impact on society", that more women would have been inclined to enter the field.

This is debatable. Any higher level "non-programming-centric" approach to teaching computer science would involve heavy dollops of math; linear algebra, graph theory, calculus, probability, geometry, you name it, even if you never ended up doing theoryCS. Math has always had a problem attracting women students, and I don't see why shifting focus away from programming and towards problem solving (which I highly encourage, btw) would make the barrier to entry for women students any lower.

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