The Greatest Potential Impact of Computing Education: Performamatics & Non-Majors

December 13, 2011 at 7:47 am 1 comment

We’ve had Jesse Heines of U. Massachusetts at Lowell visiting with us for the last couple weeks.  He gave a GVU Brown Bag talk on Thursday about his Performamatics project — which has an article in this month’s IEEE Computer!  Jesse has been teaching a cross-disciplinary course on computational thinking, where he team teaches with a music teacher.  Students work in Scratch to explore real music and real computing.  For example, they start out inventing musical notations for “found” instruments (like zipping and unzipping a coat), and talk about the kinds of notations we invent in computer science.  I particularly enjoyed this video of the music teacher, Alex Ruthmann, performing an etude through live coding.

Jesse and I talked afterward: Where does this go from here?  Where could Performamatics have its greatest impact?  We talked about how these music examples could be used in introductory computing courses (CS1 and CS2), but that’s not what’s most exciting.  Is the greatest potential impact of computing education creating more CS majors, creating more developers?  Developers do have a lot of impact, because they build the software that fuels our world (or maybe, that eats our world).  But developers don’t have a monopoly on impact.

I argued that the greatest impact for computing educators is on the non-majors and their attitudes about computing.  I showed him some quotes that Brian Dorn collected in his ICER 2010 paper about adult graphics designers (who have similar educational backgrounds and interests to Jesse’s non-majors) on their attitudes about computer scientists:

P2: I went to a meeting for some kind of programmers, something or other. And they were OLD, and they were nerdy, and they were boring! And I’m like, this is not my personality. Like I can’t work with people like that. And they worked at like IBM, or places like that. They’ve been doing, they were working with Pascal. And I didn’t…I couldn’t see myself in that lifestyle for that long.

P5: I don’t know a whole ton of programmers, but the ones I know, they enjoy seeing them type up all these numbers and stuff and what it makes things do. Um, whereas I just do it, to get it done and to get paid. To be honest. The design aspect is what really interests me a lot more.

These are adults, perhaps not much different than your state or federal legislators, your school administrators, or even your CEO. Brian’s participants are adults who don’t think much of computer scientists and what they do.  There are a lot of adults in the world who don’t think much of computer scientists, despite all evidence of the value of computing and computing professionals in our world.

Will Jesse’s students think the same things about computer scientists 5 years after his course?  10 years later?  Or will they have new, better-informed views about computer science and computer scientists?  The 2005 paper by Scaffidi, Shaw, and Myers predicted 3 million professional software developers in the US by 2012, and 13 million professionals who program but aren’t software developers.  That’s a lot of people programming without seeing themselves as computer scientists or developers. Would even more program if they weren’t predisposed to think that computer science is so uninteresting?

That’s where I think the greatest impact of work like Performamatics might be — in changing the attitudes of the everyday citizens, improving their technical literacy, giving them greater understanding of the computing that permeates their lives, and keeping them open to the possibility that they might be part of that 13 million that needs to use programming in their careers.  There will only be so many people who get CS degrees.  There will be lots of others who will have attitudes about computing that will influence everything from federal investments to school board policies. It’s a large and important impact to influence those attitudes.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  December 13, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Jesse is always coming up with good ideas that combine computer science and other fields in ways that don’t come naturally to everyone.
    At Microsoft we talk a lot about “non professional developers” by which we mean people whose job is not to develop software but who spend some time doing it either to solve their own problems or for interest. This includes hobbiests as well as professionals in fields like business and accounting who write code, for example, as macros in Excel. Those people who all benefit from a little formal CS training. I have been saying for years that people who work in many fields could make better use of the tools they have if they understood more of the principles behind them. CS for everyone.

    Reply

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