Interest in computer science rising at Tufts
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 06:04
The release of “The Social Network” (2010) gave a mainstream audience a taste of the intriguing possibilities of computer science. Just a year later, the Wall Street Journal reported — using data from the Computing Research Association — that the number of computer science majors in America had jumped 7.6 percent from 2009 to 2010.
Students at Tufts have followed the same trend with many majors and even non−majors currently learning the basics of computational thinking.
According to Assistant Professor of Computer Science Benjamin Hescott, the stereotypical image of computer science majors is what usually daunts non−majors. Tufts’ track record, though, challenges this view.
“[Non−majors think], ‘I don’t see myself as a stereotypical computer scientist.’ Luckily, we’re at the exact university to [dispel] these things,” Hescott said. “Our majors are not sitting at home every night on the computer. I can’t play video games; I’m horrible at them!”
Computer science majors are a diverse group of students on campus, especially since many complete other majors as well.
“Most people double major, which I think is interesting,” junior Adrienne Dreyfus said. “It shows how interdisciplinary computer science actually is and can be. I think honestly you can find a computer science major in every department.”
In addition, the majors themselves show variation in their level of exposure to computer science before college.
Dreyfus, who recently won the 100K Business Plan Competition with her website proposal, had limited skills as a freshman.
“I randomly signed up for Comp 11 [Introduction to Computer Science] because … everyone said I was good with computers. But it was like, I was good with PowerPoint,” Dreyfus said. “So, I got into it pretty randomly.”
Junior Amanda Hay said that a lifelong interest in computers — despite a lack of classroom experience — inspired her to take the introductory course.
“My dad and I built a computer together,” Hay said. “I’ve been using a computer since I was five, it’s just been a huge part of my childhood.”
Even for non−majors who are not interested in computer science, professors and majors argue that a basic knowledge of computational thinking is important and should be learned in college, though computational thinking itself is tricky to define.
“I was just in [Washington, D.C.] at a small breakout session that the National Science Foundation had done trying to define what we mean by computational thinking,” Hescott said. “It’s a controversial definition.”
Across the board, however, computational thinking received similar definitions from professors and majors alike.
“It’s really just problem solving — big problems that you break down,” junior Juan Carlos Montemayor Elosua, a computer science major in the School of Engineering, said. “You need to solve [a problem] in the simplest, fastest, most secure way possible.”
In fact, there are many examples of computational thinking skills that are usable in the real world.
According to Hescott, examples of assignments from Comp 11 include analyzing what terms are better for a monthly cell phone bill and translating languages the way Google Translate does.
Hescott added that although the idea of computer science might be intimidating, more and more students are trying Comp 11.
“We had a total of nearly 400 students that took Comp 11 this year,” Hescott said. “Considering we only have 5,000 undergrads at Tufts and the number of majors is around 50, we’re really seeing a great number of non−majors.”
The choice to take Comp 11 could be motivated by its fulfilling a math distribution credit, but Hescott believes students register because they want to learn computational thinking skills.
“I do think there is a change in that students are self−electing to make this a personal requirement,” Hescott said. “It’s an idea of, ‘I don’t want to just use the software, I want to understand it at a deeper level.’”
Beyond learning it in college, many note the need for earlier education in computer science.
“Computational thinking is very badly served in K−12 [schools] right now,” Associate Professor of Computer Science Norman Ramsey said. “If you get a secondary education in the United States, you get mathematical technique, a lot of reading, writing, but you don’t really learn anything about thinking computationally.”
Yet there are ways to reach out to the younger generation. Senior Lecturer of Computer Science Judith Stafford noted that the National Science Foundation has an active call for teachers and funding for K−12 programs. For example, Montemayor Elosua explained he was taught in middle school using a program that featured a drawing turtle.
At the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chris Rogers has investigated ways to educate elementary school students in computational thinking.
“It’s about how kids can learn computational thinking without sitting behind a table,” Rogers said. “One we’re working on now is about building musical instruments and using Lego sensors in a brick.”
The brick then connects to the iPhone that utilizes GarageBand to effectively produce the sound.
Rogers and the 100−member staff at CEEO made up of students and graduate students hope to bring knowledge of computational thinking to non−majors at Tufts in addition to younger children in surrounding areas. Non−majors are often involved in Tufts’ RoboLab and education through Tufts Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP).
In all respects, computer science knowledge is becoming more important for majors across disciplines.
“Many people sort of see the younger generation as so good with computers,” said Hescott. “What does that mean? ... There’s maturity around using the computer. They need to understand algorithmic thinking. I think [this generation] is realizing if you’re trying to understand a lot of data in the information age, the computer is the one that’s going to understand that data.”