‘Computer Science’ Contains Little or No Science

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: The following article was originally posted by Harry Keller on 30 July 2010 as a reply to Robert Plants‘s “Computer Science – A Field of Dreams.” -js]

The statement, “Our faculty in the schools of education have the expertise to continue to produce the same teachers for the same curricula, but they lack any expertise to produce teachers for STEM related subjects…” rings true. An insufficient number of science teachers understand science. It’s not really their fault for they haven’t had the opportunities to develop that understanding.

But this article is about “computer science.” Before any of us can respond intelligently, we must know what computer science is. Having spent a good part of my career writing software and even designing computer hardware as well as taking graduate computer science courses, I can comment that computer “science” is actually a combination of mathematics and engineering. It contains little or no science.

What is the computer science that people propose for high school students? Is it compiler theory or computer architecture? Probably not. What I have seen in high school courses called computer science is simply computer programming aka software engineering.

Should young people have a chance to write software in school when few will have a use for it in their careers?  The same question could be asked about literature, trigonometry, science, dramatics, football, and more.  Maybe students should be able to try out electrical and mechanical engineering in high school too.

You can see the problem we face here.  It’s a matter of what takes priority in education.  Should a third year of science be mandatory or optional?  Should a course in computer programming be mandatory or optional?  If mandatory, what does it replace?  Does it have to be a year-long course, a semester-long course, or just a unit of another course?  If the last, then who teaches it?  What are the standards for the course?  How do you know that the teacher has enough training and experience to provide a valuable course to students?

Writing software provides an excellent insight into what’s inside the box of computers, PDAs, tablets, and even today’s washing machines.  That understanding may be useful someday to a student just as understanding what makes good literature or understanding the nature of science is.

However, simply promoting computer science in high school provides insufficient grounds or information for deciding how to do it or even whether to do it.  The most unfortunate part of this promotion is the name.  It sounds so grand as though it’s a subject that combines computers (technology) and science, two parts of STEM.  Tell it like it is.  It’s an introduction to computer programming, writing software.

If it deserves a place in your high school curriculum based on what it really is (and I’m not saying it doesn’t), then go ahead.

One Response

  1. […] ‘Computer Science’ Contains Little or No Science « Educational Technology and Chan… […]

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