Monday, February 11, 2008

Computing Education and the Infinite Onion

[An open response to an opinion piece by Dan Reed on the CRA Policy Blog.]

I read your piece in the CRA blog, and I must take mild exception. (And not just because you made me feel old. I did not have the luxury of majoring in computer science--there were no departments then.)

When I look back on my undergraduate and M.S. education in physics, it devoted very little time to the outer layers of the onion. It was focused on the core: mechanics, optics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics. I believe these are still the heart of the physics curriculum a half-century later. Specialization in the outer layers of the onion was by and large deferred to the latter part of graduate education. Of course, students were made aware of many applications of physics in modern life, but that was not the subject matter of any of our courses.

Most of the "drivers" of things enabled by physics do not need to have a deep or precise understanding of most of its core topics (although everyone should have some understanding of mechanics). Physics departments focused on the education of future physicists, and taught a few service courses to help non-physicists appreciate some of the fundamental principles. Would it be wrong for computer science departments to similarly focus on our core? I recognize that physics is not a major growth area for most universities, but it plays a time-tested role. (And, as the chairman of a major university physics department once reminded me, "The country's always going to need truck drivers.")

Computer appreciation, like music appreciation and driver education, is a worthwhile service course, but should it be the model for computing education?

Anyhow, I'm glad CRA is looking into this whole area, and I'm sure it couldn't have found a better person than Andy van Dam to lead the effort.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment