daily californian logo


Compulsory computing?

article image


We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

NOVEMBER 14, 2012

Nearly all high-skill jobs are rapidly becoming digital and quantitative. Doctors and health care providers are scrambling to adapt to new electronic medical record databases. Journalists are increasingly expected to be proficient in Web design and computer graphics. The finance industry has been taken over by mind-twisting mathematical models. Even political campaigns are beginning to rely on sophisticated data science to figure out how to best woo donors and undecided voters.

When you consider the magnitude of these trends, it’s somewhat surprising that very few states offer K-12 computer science education and that no states require it for graduation.

But it’s even more surprising that many universities, including UC Berkeley — which happens to be a stone’s throw away from Silicon Valley — do not require that students are digitally literate before getting their bachelor’s degrees.

To graduate from UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science, students must satisfy an array of breadth requirements, which range from arts and literature to philosophy and values to physical sciences. There is no requirement that students take a course in computational thinking. And Berkeley’s one introductory computing course for nonmajors does not satisfy any of the Letters and Science breadth requirements — further discouraging non-computer science majors from taking a computing class.

“Computing is the new literacy,” said Dan Garcia, a senior lecturer in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department who sits on a number of national computer science education boards. “Every single field is being transformed by computer science. How is it that in this day and age someone can graduate with a four-year diploma and actually be clueless on a computer?”

Other computer scientists share Garcia’s disillusionment with the status of computer science in the college curriculum. Jeannette Wing, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, has argued, “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.” And UC Berkeley EECS department chair David Culler said in an email, “We lag behind many leading universities in putting computing on par with math and English.”

Why doesn’t UC Berkeley require — or at least strongly encourage — nonmajors to take computer science? For a few reasons, none of which are particularly compelling. The computer science department would need to accommodate many more students. And the department would likely need to create a suite of introductory courses, rather than simply dramatically expanding its existing course for nonmajors, according to Garcia. This would be a challenge, Garcia says, but it’d be a worthwhile one.

Some people will no doubt charge that requiring a computing course would undermine the ideal of a liberal arts education by making the Letters and Science curriculum too focused on vocational preparation rather than intellectual exploration. But the terrible job market has already put the concept of a pure liberal arts education under scrutiny. If the liberal arts are to retain their credibility, they must be adapted to reflect changing economic realities. Not to mention the fact that, as Garcia and others have argued, computational literacy is a fundamental skill in the 21st century — it has nearly as strong a claim to a place in the liberal arts curriculum as reading or writing.

This debate could have far-reaching consequences — there is a broad consensus that science and technology education is key to America’s economic future, and UC Berkeley’s policies are influential. If the campus changed its course requirements to ensure that students from all majors are computationally literate before they graduate, other UC campuses might follow suit. This could, in turn, encourage more high school students to take computer science classes.

As Garcia said, “Things would start rolling.”


Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or on Twitter: @jawillick.

NOVEMBER 16, 2012