Monday, August 10, 2009

Enticing Computer Science Majors

What enticed you to become what you are today?  For me, Computer Science enticed me by giving me the following:

  • A way to solve problems.  I love trying to figure out new stuff and make things work.  In computer science, we are given a problem and a processor, and then we have to get the processor to solve the problem.

  • A way to build something useful.  One of my most satisfying projects was to build the BYU Intramural Activities scheduling and online registration system.  I had played Intramurals many times and it was exciting to build something that I knew I would use, along with 10,000 other BYU students per semester.  It was also fun to see people explain the new rules (that I helped create) to me, having no idea I created the site they were using.  (They have put a new look on it, but I believe they are still using my system today.)

  • A way to learn about how things work.  I have had a hard time understanding why people don't want to know how something works, because I have to know how everything works.  From cars to the ocean tides, I want to know how it works.  It strikes me odd that most Computer Science graduates have a very limited understanding on how a computer actually works.  They might know a little bit about the CPU, but they really don't know how all of the I/O devices, and the operating system all function together.  For the most part, they are completely content just knowing that it works and writing programs that run on top of it all.  (Of course, I am sure the reason why people don't want to know how everything works is due to a limited amount of time.  No?  Okay, so maybe I am just a weirdo.)

Anyway, as I have been developing lots of programming projects to torture my students, I have realized the best assignments have some sort of excitement factor.  In order to create the best labs, I really need to know what entices students.

One way is with graphics.  Many students like creating graphics, or so I have been told.  This is why they created Alice.  Unfortunately,  Alice has very little appeal to me.  I can't really solve any new problems with it.  I don't know why, but making a girl skate around on the ice for hours isn't all that motivating to me.  So when some of my colleagues suggested that I make everything in Computer Science graphical, it really bothered me.  Mostly because once they graduate, chances are they are going to be typing text into a text editor or an IDE 8 hours a day.  So, (to me) their goal was to trick the students into liking Computer Science by making it fun - ie. graphical.  I used to think, "Computer Science should be fun by itself, it doesn't need skating ballerinas.  If they don't like it, they should probably choose another major."

Don't get me wrong, I was never against including more graphics in my assignments.  I just wasn't motivated to spend hours trying to create labs that did have graphics in them.

When one of my colleagues introduced a graphics lab where students draw beach huts that can be posted on a web page, it made me think a lot about my previous opinions about graphics in Computer Science.  It was easy to tell that some of the students spent a lot of time making their hut.  I then thought about what motivates them to spend 3-4 extra hours on their lab when they probably have a lot of other assignments and, here in Hawaii, a lot of surfing to do. Okay, so I had to admit that this lab had some sort of excitement factor to it.  Then, does that mean that everyone who spent extra time to make their hut prettier has the wrong motivation, and will eventually be really upset that we tricked them to think that Computer Science is really just making fun pictures?

So here are some of the possible factors that motivated these students:

  • Being an artist.  They liked painting their canvas by typing words like drawCircle.

  • A sense of accomplishment by actually creating something they can show people, just like I liked being the Intramural site creator.

  • Overcoming a challenge.

Can you think of others?

So, if the students are motivated only by the first factor that I mentioned, my guess is that they have a major disappointment coming their way.  However, if they are motivated by the other factors, they could be hooked enough to trade their surf board for a new computer.

So, are graphics the only way to motivate people into Computer Science?  Maybe so, and this is why.  Most beginning CS having only interacted with the graphical aspects of a computer.  Surfing the web is highly graphical, especially with flash ads on every page.  Even writing a report has many graphical elements (how long do you spend formatting?).  So, when a student actually builds something graphical he can feel like he created something that fits into his paradigm of a computer program.

Not until they catch a vision of  all of the other things computers do behind the GUI will they start to appreciate what programming really is.  For a beginning programming class, graphics will probably do a lot of good, but we have to transition them to the real Computer Science by having them explore behind the GUI.  So, I guess I have to say, "Skate on ballerina."