The Billings Outpost

Computer science students need higher standards



I read a Sept. 23 Billings Gazette article “Exec pushes computer science degrees” with great interest. Here is my take on the problem – not enough such graduates – and what might be done to strengthen those numbers.

While I applaud the article’s proffered solutions (adding additional introductory labs, instituting a free online computer programming course, and having more programming courses in our high schools), I don’t believe those go far enough.

Mike Dennison’s Gazette article mentions that the three state institutions (University of Montana, Montana State University and Montana Tech) currently have about 450 students with computer science majors, but most recently only 43 graduated. Why so few?

To fix ideas, let us assume the class breakdown is 200 freshmen, 125 sophomores, 75 juniors and 50 seniors. Some will change majors because more attractive options open to them; some will change because they really didn’t understand what computer science was all about (It’s NOT just playing computer games). But the main reason students drop out of the computer science program is that the courses are hard.

Aren’t the beginning students smart enough? I don’t for a minute believe that. Well then, are they just too lazy to do the work? I don’t believe the general work ethic is anywhere higher than in Montana. Then what’s the problem? Culture, and preparation.

First, culture. We’re a rural state, and many parents of our students have not had the advantage of a college degree. Most of those parents are given to quick and easy approval in certain cases: “I see you boys stacked up 1,100 bales this weekend, son. Good job!”

But “I see you’re pulling A’s in your Algebra II exams, Suzy!” is much less likely. It’s not enough to make two touchdowns Friday night, or put up 100 feet of fence line over a long weekend, if you don’t get it where mathematics is concerned and can’t think up an original premise on which to base your weekly English theme.

An example. My first morning as the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s director of research and development (this was back in 1980) I was given a tour of the facility on Butte’s Continental Drive. We ended up out back among a small copse of solar collectors. I noticed that various of those pointed in slightly different directions, so I asked, “Which way is south?” Answer: “Oh, it’s over towards the Highlands ... ” with an arm flung in that direction.

“Not good enough,” I said. “I want them on an accurate south, plus or minus one degree.” By 3 p.m. that was accomplished. The ability and the work ethic were there, but the standards were too low. They soon improved, at least among the survivors.

Second, preparation. Public education is going through a hard time. I doubt that even half of the math teachers have a firm idea what their subject is really all about. Yes, it does deal with numbers and equations, but primarily mathematics is a rarified form of language in which the objects it treats (numbers, functions, statements, etc.) have definite meanings and the operations (addition, raising to powers, logical implication, etc.) have definite rules on how they work.

It will never foster that correct view to limit the class to quick answers (It’s not like a TV quiz show) and multiple choice tests. Learning how to analyze a problem (What really is asked for? How might I approach it?) should begin far back in grade school, but seldom does. The last year or so of high school doesn’t give even the able student sufficient background to deal successfully with the more difficult college subjects.

Another example. One of my first computer consulting jobs after starting up Computer Expertise (1984) was for Nick Cladis; he wanted a program to deal with zero-coupon bonds. Nick had had a programmer working on such a program for some weeks, but to no avail. When I looked into that fellow’s efforts I saw that he had been trying to approximate the necessary exponential functions with straight lines! In that case, the knowledge base simply wasn’t there. Perhaps even more to the point, he didn’t know what it was that he didn’t know, and had made no apparent effort to find out.

Higher standards regarding intellectual work, and starting sooner, would do us all, not just the computer industry, a world of good. There’s no reason not to try.

John Lowry is a retired physicist in Billings.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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