On Bringing Excitement and Fun to Computer Science Education

In engineering departments around the world, at present emphasis is on imparting technical and analytical skills to students so that they become good engineers and scientists. Furthermore, if professors want to gain recognition and have tenure, there is no choice for them but to pursue a highly specialized research area.

And in this rush to create engineers and to do highly specialized research, one loses big picture!

What is the big picture? Big picture is that of intellectual pursuit for sake of joy and of an education system which should create well-rounded complete human beings rather than just engineers. Students graduating from technical institutes should have the option of becoming entrepreneurs, social leaders, teachers, artists, writers, and not just engineers. Research should demolish interdisciplinary boundaries and should offer new alternatives to super-specialization career path.

In Science, Order and Creativity, David Bohm and F. David Peat argue how science has lost its wholeness by getting fragmented into narrow disciplines. They call for renewed emphasis on ideas rather than formulae and on understanding of the whole rather than mechanics of parts, and for playfulness in science and in life. According to David Bohm, the division of science and art is temporary. Just as art consists not simply of works of art but of an attitude, the artistic spirit, so does science consist not in the accumulation of knowledge but in the creation of fresh modes of perception.

In an address to faculty and students of IIT Kanpur, India, in 2009, Professor Yash Pal emphasised the importance of joy in academic work, of abolishing boundaries between disciplines and of unconventional way of thinking and working.

Now let us focus on Computer Science which is the title of this article. There are some challenges specific to Computer Science.

First, Computer Science as taught in Universities seems to have lost some of its identity. Other disciplines such as Bioinformatics, Biological Sciences, Mathematics, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, have their own computer related courses in which they teach applications of computer technology to their respective fields. Some Computer Science Departments gradually have become service departments teaching programming to students majoring in other fields.

Second, interest in Computer Science is not great among high school students. And among girls, Computer Science is definitely not a popular field of study. It is considered a discipline which is boring and unattractive, reducing one to a programmer working in an impersonal cubicle with little human interaction. This does however contrast with situation in developing countries such as India, where students are more worried about employment and therefore Computer Science is considered appealing from the point of view of career prospects.

At the same time, it is widely accepted that there will be shortage of engineers in coming years in the USA. Therefore, it is imperative to improve interest of high school students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

Some departments have taken notice of the problem and have started offering more innovative curriculum. An example is College of Computing of Georgia Tech. A Computer Science undergraduate there has the option of selecting one of the following threads: modelling and simulation, devices, people, systems and architecture, theory, information internetworks, intelligence and media. Stanford University offers a degree in Symbolic Systems, in which students probe the meaning of intelligence, in natural and artificial symbolic systems.

To revitalize Computer Science and to make it attractive to kids in school, an effort should be made to communicate to them about importance of Computer Science and at the same time universities should take another look at their curriculum.

Computer Science holds a very special role in the world of intellect and of sciences, its technology having tremendous impact on society.

Why Computer Science is so special? Because it intertwines with mathematics – notions of computational universality, undecidability and intractability being great intellectual achievements of 20th century; it makes trains and cars run and planes fly; it makes robotic rovers roam the surface of planets; it makes internet – Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, are all household phrases; it makes Hollywood produce some finest movies with amazing special effects; it brings medical sciences closer to victory over diseases; it organizes huge amounts of data for people to make decisions about most pressing problems such as environment, energy, water, nutrition and shelter; it makes people talk to each other with their mobile phones; it provides tools to social and political scientists, economists and psychologists so that they can make models and simulate them for better understanding of their theories; and it gives new medium to artists, writers and poets for self-expression.

Computer Science pervades fabric of modern life everywhere and is cool! Can this message be communicated in school to high school children so that they feel excited about pursuing it as their major?

Perhaps we need courses which provide thought-provoking, stimulating look at Computer Science and how it intersects boundaries with Mathematics, Sciences, Arts and Humanities. Students should study how Computer Science and related technologies have had broad and deep impact, allowing them to see the discipline as an integral component of human endeavour to understand world and to make it a better place. This will bring excitement and fun to the field.

In such interdisciplinary approach to curriculum, one can have contributions from experts from other fields in building a holistic vision of the field by having them highlight how Computer Science helps them in their respective fields and by having them propose new cross-disciplinary ideas for productive and socially relevant research.

One recent example of multi-disciplinary nature of Computer Science is Deep Learning, which is an active research area in Machine Learning and which has biological motivations. Collaboration by biologists and computer scientists may lead to better understanding of how human brain works.

Can Computer Science rise up to a leadership role in intellectual pursuits of humankind and prove itself worthy of being a great science? It is hoped that it will play an instrumental role in propelling humankind to new levels of achievement. It is also hoped that this article will stimulate discussions in Computer Science departments as they design new curriculum.