UC Berkeley aims to stay ahead of the curve in age of tech

Students are hard at work in a computer science lab in Soda Hall. Some experts are arguing that programming is a new form of literacy that may soon join the ranks of reading and writing skills.
Kelly Fang/Senior Staff
Students are hard at work in a computer science lab in Soda Hall. Some experts are arguing that programming is a new form of literacy that may soon join the ranks of reading and writing skills.

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As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, so has the demand for people who know how to create and work with it, and UC Berkeley is looking to ensure that its graduates don’t get left in the dust.

Its efforts come at a time when some experts are claiming that computer-programming knowledge is integral to staying ahead in the technology age. In fact, they argue, programming is a new form of literacy that may soon join the ranks of reading and writing skills.

In fall 2009, Dan Garcia, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences, piloted a new and revamped computer science course for nonmajors called Computer Science 10: The Beauty and Joy of Computing. CS 10 is a lab-based class in which students learn the basics of programming that can be applied to any field of study. The class serves as a model for the new AP Computer Science course being developed by the National Science Foundation for high school students.

“We live in an era where folks are growing up digitally literate, but they are only literate as passive consumers of digital content,” Garcia said. “We believe that this is a crucial time where people need to be not just consumers but producers of their futures.”

A 2006 paper published by Jeannette Wing, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, concluded that computational thinking will be a fundamental skill used worldwide by the middle of the 21st century, just like reading, writing and arithmetic.

As part of its effort to promote the importance of computational thinking, the campus has announced that this year’s On the Same Page program, designed to engage the UC Berkeley community on a single topic, focuses on the dawn of the computing age.

Alix Schwartz, the director of academic planning for the Undergraduate Division in the College of Letters and Science, said the theme was chosen to get students thinking about computing and its importance in society. According to Schwartz, 8,000 copies of books about this topic will be handed out to new students, and George Dyson, a famous author and technology historian, will be a speaker this year.

“What is so great about this program is that it unites the campus,” Schwartz said. “This is a chance for the entire campus to participate in a dialogue about the importance of computing in the future.”

However, this program may just be the gateway for drawing students into the world of computer programming and its potential global impact.

In a live Google Plus Hangout last month, President Barack Obama emphasized the need for talented coders, saying that American high schools should teach students programming skills to allow them to pursue any career with or without a college degree.

Code.org recently released a short film arguing that coding is a “superpower” that everyone should learn. The video, which featured testimonials from programming giants like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, has received nearly 10 million views on YouTube.

With this premise gaining momentum across the country, Garcia said he wanted to encourage non-CS students at UC Berkeley to learn computing skills as well.

“We’ve transformed the course for nonmajors to be much broader because we thought to ourselves, ‘If this was the only (computer science) class they were going to take, what would we want to teach them?’” Garcia said.

According to Garcia, the course has received significant recognition since its inception. In addition to being one of five national pilots for the new AP CS course, it was selected as a Bears Breaking Boundaries winner for its innovative curriculum in 2009.

The course is now being offered as a part of the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project, an initiative designed to integrate online courses for credit in the undergraduate curriculum.

Garcia said that the number of students who took the course and wanted to come back as teaching assistants was phenomenal.

“I have testimonials from 17 students without being solicited who have come back to tell me that the course really changed their outlook on computing and programming,” Garcia said. “Several of them are now CS majors or minors.”

Samir Makhani, a junior majoring in EECS, took CS 10 during his freshman year in fall 2010 having had no prior programming experience.

“After taking the course, I was convinced CS was the path for me,” Makhani said in an email. “Exactly one year later, I TA’d the course for 3 semesters, and am currently one of Dan’s most senior/experienced TAs. I really enjoy being involved in CS10 because I want students to experience the thrill of programming, just like I did.”

Makhani is currently part of the effort to take CS 10 to edX, an online platform that would offer the course for free to thousands of students around the world.

For Garcia, the next step is to make computer science a required course at UC Berkeley.

He said he is dismayed by the disparity between the percentage of undergraduate students who take an introductory CS course at Stanford University and those who take one at UC Berkeley.

According to Stanford University’s website, more than 90 percent of its undergraduates take a CS course, while only around 30 percent take one at UC Berkeley, Garcia said.

Garcia added that he is planning to expand the CS 10 course by making it a Discovery Course within the College of Letters and Science. Such courses are designed to appeal to nonmajors who “want to take intellectual risks,” according to the university website.

Garcia referenced the book “Program or Be Programmed” by Douglas Rushkoff as indicative of the importance that programming skills hold today. In today’s society, he said, people are either learning to program or being programmed by everything around them.

“It’s all about empowering people to learn to program so they can feel like they have the place in this ever-evolving technology world,” Garcia said.

Pooja Mhatre is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @phmatre.

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