[plt-scheme] Re: [plt-edu] Should computer programming be mandatory

From: Greg Woodhouse (gregory.woodhouse at gmail.com)
Date: Wed Oct 15 13:00:27 EDT 2008

Well, there's more to the story. What is now called VistA (an electronic
health record solution that is currently used by the U.S. Veterans Health
Administration) got its start when healthcare professionals starting
automating their work "on the sly". You can read the story of this
"underground railroad" at


My co-worker (or colleague, or friend) was one of the original hardhats. I
came along shortly afterwards, but with an academic background in
mathematics, becoming both something of a VistA expert and an outsider.
There is a tension, often quite palpable, between VistA pioneers who work in
"the field" (i.e., at VA medical centers/hospitals) and people like me who
work in office buildings. My friend's comment might reasonably be
paraphrased as "we've always done fine without you (pl.) and we don't need
you now."

In any case, you really hit the nail on the head: I recall just a few years
ago developing a parser driven tool that would work it's way through the
entire code base and build a dependency graph as best it could. (MUMPS is a
dynamically scoped language, and side-effcts can live a long time.) One
thing I've been arguing for a long time is that the code has grown far too
tightly coupled and needs to be reworked/refactored, but that can bed a real
hot button issue, particularly with the VistA pioneers.

Most current work is being done in Java, and even now I'm busy trying to
disentagle some undocumented Java code. I don't have to tell you that a new
language is a panacea, but I think there are still people that think it is.
But to get back to the original story, there's a real sense of bitterness
among the MUMPSters, who feel betrayed (and sometimes angry) over the shift
to Java.

Now me, I'd love to work in Scheme (or another functional language). If PLT
Scheme had standardized database support, a few library editions
(particularly in networking and I/O) and (perhaps) a richer GUI library, it
could easily be my first choice of platforms. (I say "perhaps" because I'm
still learning, and the fact that I don't know how to do something doesn't
mean the capability isn't there. In addition, this probably is not the top
priority. I'm still a little cautious with regard to web interfaces, but
they seem to be where the industry is headed now.)

On Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 6:43 AM, Shriram Krishnamurthi <sk at cs.brown.edu>wrote:

> True, but:
> - Anecdotally, we haven't seen a huge difference amongst the students
> coming out of these classes.
> - More to the point, there are very significant secondary effects that
> are hard to control.  The courses are interchangeable curricularly,
> but not socially.
> -- For instance, the functional-first class tends to attract more
> mathematically-minded students.
> -- The objects-first class is a bit of a circus (live videotaping,
> skits, etc.).  This attracts some students, while it drives others
> away (I personally find some of this risible).
> -- The objects-first class is much more graphics-oriented (our
> functional-first folks are pointlessly ascetic, though historically
> it's easy to see why: their course emerged as a *reaction* to the
> other course).
> -- Some of us, including me, certainly believe that the
> functional-first sequence tends to attract more elite students, and
> that that trend is growing.
> -- In the minds of its designers, the variety of PLs is only one
> feature functional-first approach; equally important to them is what
> they call the "integrated" introduction (algorithms + programming
> throughout the year, rather than a traditional CS1/CS2 split).
> -- Students in most parts of America don't generally pick up
> additional languages just by assimilation.  But that's not true of
> computer languages.  So we would have to somehow control for those who
> went through the objects-first approach AND learned no other languages
> subsequently.
> So what would we be measuring, exactly?
> As we've said repeatedly on this forum, the great thing about social
> studies is that if you don't like the outcome of the one you're
> presented with, you can simply study the parameters -- do so long
> enough and you can show why it doesn't apply to you.  This is a
> standard problem with educational literature and its adoption.
> Shriram
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