[plt-scheme] Computers considered harmful

From: Todd O'Bryan (toddobryan at gmail.com)
Date: Sun May 10 06:47:26 EDT 2009

On Fri, May 8, 2009 at 7:24 PM, Prabhakar Ragde <plragde at uwaterloo.ca> wrote:
> Matthias wrote:
>> Our students wish to use computers. If we don't use computers and
>> show them how to write tool 3D simulations that also plug into their
>> emotional brains and issue smells at the same time, they'll go down
>> the hallway to the EE guys who have no qualms teaching ASM, eh, C++
>> again.
>> Our only choice is to combine the world of "modeling" with programming.
> Sorry, I know the discussion has moved on, but I want to challenge this
> point.
> This describes the students we are getting now, for the most part, who have
> been seduced into the field by CGI and video games. It does not describe the
> students we are not getting but would like to have as well. In particular,
> math students seem to be excited by problem solving that is not tarted up
> with visuals and sound (and there are more female high-school students
> interested in math and good at it than interested in CS these days). The
> DrScheme approach is the best one I have seen to date to convince these
> students that CS also offers what thrills them. (Haskell may be even better
> in this respect but the learning curve for beginners is too steep, at least
> at present.) Sound and fury may actually be counterproductive for these
> students; it may be the reason they are not in CS in the first place. --PR

It's a balancing act. We have to provide eye candy and interactivity
to appeal to students for whom those things are important, but we have
to make sure that we are fundamentally teaching problem solving and
design, because those are the skills that transfer to every domain
that students might want to pursue.

I've had several students whose parents said they weren't much
interested in computers become interested because of HtDP, especially
very good math and science students. The HtDP curriculum appeals to
students who like puzzles of many types--logic puzzles, crossword
puzzles, mathematical conundrums. They see that computer programming
is really the same thing as puzzle-solving--taking what you have and
changing it into what you want, all the while respecting constraints
that you don't have much control over.

The trick--and it is a trick--is to keep the puzzle-solving character
of the curriculum while providing enough "sound and fury" to motivate
the students for whom the puzzle-solving isn't enough. The first is
absolutely essential if we want to keep the right students in the
pipeline and the second is critical if we want to reach students who
can learn to love puzzle-solving if they're exposed to it in the right
ways. Too little or too much of either alienates a population that the
field needs if it's going to succeed.


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