Making Computer Literacy Part of the Core Curriculum ; Universities Offer Courses to Initiate Students into Theory and Even Practice

Article excerpt

Many professors of computer science say college students should be taught the general concepts that programming languages employ.

Reading, writing and -- refactoring code?

Many professors of computer science say college graduates in every major should understand software fundamentals. They do not proclaim that everyone needs to be a skilled programmer. Rather, they seek to teach "computational thinking" -- the general concepts programming languages employ.

In 2006, Jeannette M. Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, wrote a manifesto arguing that basic literacy should be redefined to include understanding of computer processes.

"Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists," she wrote. "To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child's analytical ability."

There is little agreement within the field, however, about what exactly are the core elements of computational thinking. Nor is there agreement about how much programming students must do, if any, to understand it.

Most important, the need for teaching computational thinking to all students remains vague.

At the college level, computer science courses intended for nonmajors run a gamut. In some classes, students start coding right away with a mainstream language. Others exclude programming and examine social and ethical issues related to computer use.

At Carnegie Mellon, students who are not computer science majors are invited to try "Principles of Computation." It starts with a history of computation, but in Week 2, students start learning the programming language Ruby. Then the course covers iteration, recursion, random number generators and other topics.

Tom Cortina, who teaches the course, said that some students perceived the programming as challenging, especially those who were not majoring in a field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics and were not accustomed to "the preciseness required."

At Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, Mark D. LeBlanc, a professor of computer science, teaches "Computing for Poets." The only prerequisite, according to the course syllabus, is "a love of the written (and digital) word."

Mr. LeBlanc has his students learn the basics of Python, another modern language used in the software industry. But this course is tied to two courses offered by the English department on J.R.R. Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon literature. Students in the computing course put concepts to immediate use by analyzing large bodies of text. The syllabus is more like what one would find for a humanities course. …