Programming for all?

 Computer science should be a high school graduation requirement, argues Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. He wants more girls to give programming a try so they’ll have a shot at Silicon Valley jobs.

In a series called Women in Computing: The Promise Denied, Cassidy focuses on the declining share of women who choose computer science majors: By 2011, it was down to 17.6 percent.

Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.

A Berkeley class called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” draws as many women as men. In addition to teaching programming, lecturer Dan Garcia explores how computer science can solve real-world problems.

Garcia is training high school teachers to teach computing and creating a MOOC for would-be computer science teachers.

Everyone should take a computer class, says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Cassidy thinks girls would like programming if they tried it.

Imagine if classes were widely available and that girls were required to take computer science in high school or earlier. They would see how computing often requires teamwork and is a key tool in other areas, such as medicine, environmental science, finance, politics and space exploration — thereby putting a lie to the stereotype that programming is a solitary pursuit in which writing cool code is an end in itself.

A group of “tech superstars” have started to push state legislatures and school boards to add computer science to the list of core college-prep courses. “Co-founder Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-area angel investor and coding evangelist, says the organization will pay to train existing K-12 teachers to teach computer science,” reports Cassidy. The group wants a class in every high school.

In Rebooting the Pathway to Success, the Association for Computing Machinery calls for expanding K-12 computer science education and making it part of the STEM core.

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people — female, male, whatever — to learn programming. I took a computer class in high school myself in the days of paper tape readers. (I took it to meet boys, not realizing I’d meet nerdy boys.)

But I don’t think mandatory programming will make significantly more girls — or blacks and Latinos — see coding as “cool.” It’s cool if you’re into logic. I did some programming in college too in a “math for non-math majors” class. I liked it. Everyone else hated it.

And I’m very dubious about adding graduation requirements. If computer science is added, something else should be deleted. Maybe a programming language can substitute for a foreign language?

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    You’re not dubious, Joanne. You’re skeptical. 🙂

    I can totally get behind a logic requirement — and that’s really what a programming requirement is: a form of practical, applied logic.

    An *actual* logic requirement would be better, but then students might start asking all sorts of pesky questions.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Bah, I’m apparently an ill-informed grammar snob. “Dubious” seems to have two meanings, after all.

      My apologies. 🙁

  2. One hears nowadays a lot nowadays about outsourcing of computer programming. It may not be such a good field for US workers in the future.

  3. This has got to be the most idiotic idea imaginable. Most women in IT/CS/IS usually wind up geared more towards management, since they can earn more. I know several women CIO’s/CTO’s who out earn most of the coders in any company, due to the fact they gravitated towards that as a main goal.

    I’m more of a nuts and bolts person…I like fixing things, and yes, I can do stuff like technical management, team/project lead, etc. Trying to correct an imbalance that IT has a shortage of women, would be the same as nursing schools trying to recruit more men (nice idea, but hardly necessary).

    I’d much rather high schools develop student who know how to read, write, and handle math, and succeed in higher education or trade schools, than worry about learning how to program in high school.

    Most of the best programmers I know learned it out of the setting of schools and/or colleges (i.e. – on their own).

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I agree that it’s silly to think of it as job prep.

      But as mental training, it’s great.

      You could even use a mostly obsolete language like Scheme or Fortran if you wanted to make it clear that it’s not really vocational.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Requiring a course in computer programming because everyone uses computers is as silly as requiring an auto mechanics course because everyone drives a motor vehicle.

    Requiring a course in computer programming because computers are such an important part of our civilization is as silly as requiring a course in auto mechanics because motor vehicles are such an important part of our civilization.

  5. Not no, H*ll no. There are already too many requirements that should not apply to “all” but to (real) college-prep only or to a specific vo tech program only. One-size-fits-all is a seriously flawed approach. The idea of using programming to meet a college-prep foreign-language requirement, however, has existed for decades – some of my kids had friends, heading into STEM fields, who did that.

  6. George Larson says:

    I recall reading years ago that Euclid wrote his Elements to teach logic.

  7. Kirk Parker says:

    Cassidy can go to the computer equivalent of H*ll, as far as I’m concerned. As I said in that Big Social Networking Site That Must Not Be Named:

    Here’s why all the NOs! “Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.”

    Look, there are plenty of people in programming who shouldn’t be there, and plenty of women who _are_ nerds*! Let’s worry about why _the latter_ aren’t getting into software development as a career, and leave the non-nerds out of it, ok???
    *Ever been to a cosplay event? Not my thing, but I’ve seen the pictures… and there’s no lack of women…

  8. It’s kind of funny that this is always coming up. Do we see programs pushing people to be electricians? Accountants? Yet these are valuable skills, 21st century skills.

    I can’t decide what motivates people to do this stuff. At first glance, one might be tempted to say it was all about the gender gap, but I suspect the gender gap is just as large as with electricians. It might seem to be pay, but electricians make a lot of money, especially those who are self-employed.

    I see two factors at work: first, there is the perception that everyone who programs for living is getting rich on stock options and free Google cafeteria food. I would imagine that about as many programmers get rich as bankers get rich (remember there are many thousands of bankers in small banks all over the country: the rich ones are mostly just the few in the power positions in New York). Even if you manage to get in early on a startup and even if that startup does well and even if you eventually cash some money out of it, the payoff is likely to be less than a year or two’s salary – which isn’t that great considering you probably worked your tail off for a year or two to get it.

    Second, I think there is a perception that, since all you do is sit and type on a computer, there can’t be all that much to it and, really, anyone (especially those bright, bright girls, so much smarter than grubby old boys) ought to be able to do it. If anyone could, then obviously, someone, something is holding the girls back and that’s not fair.

  9. Someone always wants to compel someone else to do what *they* think is important. If girls don’t want to go into IT, so what? Somehow I think the world will keep turning. It’ll keep turning if boys don’t want to go into elementary education, too.