Vivek Haldar

What do you think computer science is?

Via this article in the latest CACM, I came across the work of Mike Hewner, who studies CS education, in particular the issue of what students think the field is about.

Here are some (paraphrased) points from his dissertation that I found particularly interesting:

  • There were three main conceptions of CS among students (with the percentage that held it):
    1. Programming is central, with other subfields in supporting roles (41%)
    2. Broad view: CS consists of many computing-related subfields (27%)
    3. Theory: CS as the mathematical study of algorithms (8%)
  • As ever, there is still a deep tension between the programming and implementation-centric and algorithms and theory-centric view of CS. Theory still has a PR problem. “Many students did not understand the purpose of CS theory, and a few left it out of their description of CS entirely.”
  • At the high-school level, application use was conflated with CS. E.g. believing that a CS degree could be used for a Photoshop job.
  • Surprisingly, misconceptions about CS did not change long-term educational decisions, which were based on more immediate experiences like whether a course was enjoyable.