Computer Science’s Place in the General Education Curriculum

buildingLewis University has been holding discussions on campus this year about whether and how to modify its general education requirements. Currently, Computer Science is not a general education requirement.

It most certainly should be.

The function of the General Education curriculum is to introduce students to various ways of thinking, to show them different ways of viewing the world and addressing its problems. As an engineer, I don’t think I’d want to live in a world where everything was viewed from an engineer’s perspective. There are other ways to approach life, ways that enrich it, make it more interesting and more joyous.

I could consider a building’s design solely on its architectural merits. Or, I could consider how it connects with the culture and history of its city, how its shapes convey a mood, how it evokes certain emotions or causes particular words or phrases to come to mind. I could calculate a cost-benefit analysis of the choices that were made in its construction, the number of jobs created for its development, or the impact of the services its inhabitants will provide. From where did the materials that make up the building come, and are any of those sources supporting governments that have questionable records regarding human rights? I could think about whether the building might be a magnet for other new, high-impact construction in the area.  I could also consider the impact the building will have on traffic, pollution, and energy consumption. Clearly, the building is far more than an edifice; it is a catalyst for thought, a rich discussion point, an object of fascination.

This is the way the world looks to someone who is able to see it through a variety of lenses. It is endlessly fascinating. To use those lenses, however, one needs to be shown how to use them, or even where to find them. That is what the general education curriculum traditionally has done: it gets students started looking at the world from diverse perspectives. However, we are missing an increasingly important perspective. There is lens that is missing.

Consider the building example again, this time from the perspective of a Computer Scientist. That building was designed on computer using software that helped the architect determine how to maximize living and working space, where to put critical supports, how much material to order, how to stabilize it in extreme weather conditions, how to heat and to cool it, how to secure its entrances, and how to increase its energy efficiency. It includes systems that monitor energy usage and enable control systems that reduce energy consumption during times of peak electricity cost. It is a highly connected building, most likely, with miles of cable and lots of wireless bandwidth connecting hundreds and perhaps thousands of computer systems together, and server rooms are spread throughout the building to support those computers’ thirst for data. Should some of those servers be virtualized to reduce energy usage and cut down on space? Should some of the building’s data be stored with a cloud service provider instead, or do security concerns rule that out? All that data saturating the building has to be secured so that people’s privacy isn’t violated, and yet we can’t be so draconian in our security choices that people can’t share the data they wish to share conveniently. The building will probably have an internal-facing website that serves as an information portal for its inhabitants, giving them timely news about upcoming events and helping build a sense of community. It will also have an external-facing website that will seek to raise the profile of the building as a destination for the city’s movers and shakers. We’ll probably want to make these sites mobile-friendly, and so we might consider building apps for the various phone and mobile platforms. Speaking of these mobile platforms, what sort of guest internet access should be provided, since 4G coverage in this steel structure might be spotty. Information monitors will be placed at key locations in the building to welcome visitors and inform tenants. All of the systems will have to be intuitive, and so specialists with a background in web design and human-machine interfaces will be called upon to ensure that the building’s systems communicate essential data as clearly as possible.

You see, Computer Science is a very, very rich way of looking at the world. It is as multifaceted as any of the traditional components of the general education curriculum. To continue to exclude it from the general education requirements at Lewis, or at any university, is to do a grave disservice to our students.

Thankfully, many universities have decided to update their general education requirements to include Computer Science. This article describes such efforts at a variety of universities across the country. Locally, Benedictine University has, for several years, offered their CS 180 as a general education requirement in combination with a variety of lab sections that serve students from different majors. In other words, all Benedictine students take a common Computer Science course that teaches students how to think about the world like a Computer Scientist does. Starting from this foundation, they take a one-credit hour laboratory course that is tailored to their interests: scientists take a programming course, business majors take a business software course, and students in the social sciences and humanities take other laboratory sections. It is a flexible solution that exposes all students to the beauty and diversity of computer science while clearly demonstrating its connection to their particular field.

Surely, everyone is a computer user. Just as responsible citizenship requires understanding the history and laws and structures of our society, all of which are covered in the general education curriculum, responsible use of computer technology requires that we understand how they work, what their limitations are, and how they impact our society. And so, a gen ed course in computing should seek to provide that content. It would discuss the history of computing, how computers represent data (including pictures and music), how computers process instructions, how data are stored in databases, how the Internet works, and how data is kept private through encryption. It would discuss how computers produce and render multiple media, including in the context of video games and movie special effects. It would discuss emerging technologies like virtualization, wearable computing, and cloud services. Because programming is the driving force for all computer technology, the gen
ed course would also teach the basics of programming, not in a standard computer language perhaps, but in a drag-and-drop visual one like Scratch, so that students could understand the thought process of programming without having to master its syntax. These programming exercises would be used to program the movement of robots, which would make for a particularly engaging way to learn the basics of programming.

In other words, a good general education course in Computer Science should teach what Lewis’ CS 200: Introduction to Computer Science course already does. That course would provide a nice springboard for the various majors on campus to offer their own particular take on computing.  In their major courses, students in the Humanities could learn content production tools, whether they be web authoring applications, music composition software, or computer graphics packages. Students in the sciences could cover advanced computer programming, mathematical simulation, and database concepts in their courses. Students in business could learn how to use software that helps organizations achieve their goals and meet their responsibilities. Students in the social sciences could learn how to use various databases that collect data about various aspects of our society and its structures.

These are just a few examples of how we could prepare graduates who have a thorough understanding of computing and how it applies to their discipline. A course like CS 200 that provides a broad introduction to computer technology and its implications would provide a suitable foundation for students to apply it knowledgeably to meet their chosen field’s challenges. Providing a broad foundation on which the major courses build is a crucial goal of general education. So far, that foundation is missing an essential pillar, and students lack a particularly important perspective on the world as a result.

Computer Science needs to become a general education requirement.

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

One thought on “Computer Science’s Place in the General Education Curriculum

  1. Mike Cunningham
    February 10, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    I really liked your well-thought out piece. A number of your proposals are very worthwhile. I think that every major should find some way of getting students familiar with digital tools and software that is discipline specific. Accountants should be familiar with a wide variety of accounting softwares; English majors should know about special date collections ; theatre majors should be exposed to set design software. Whether this goal is integrated into a series of 300/400 level courses or whether it is a one-hour stand-alone (like Benedictine) would be up to the department to decide.

    As a student of rhetoric, I see some of your proposals as speaking to the needs of turn students into excellent senders and users of messages. Clearly the platforms on which messages can be sent and receive has expanded dramatically as a result of the computer revolution. And ease of transmission and reception, and the strengths and limitations of the device have altered the making of and interpretation of content. I wonder whether we should talk about a reconceptualization of our traditional communication courses (writing and speaking) to see whether they are now or should in the near future incorporate some of your goals by blurring the boundaries between the disciplines. I’d still like to see great efforts made to help students produce and be skillful readers of sustained arguments with words, but I also acknowledge that contemporary persuasion is highly visual and takes place in many more venues. This new rhetorical world is more expansive, richer, and more confounding that the rhetorical world of our youth. So were all engaged – or should be – in the vital question of how can we help students to flourish in this world. What might the Radio/TV Broadcasting wing of the Communications Department be able to contribute to such goals.

    I don’t think there is enough time in four years to provide non-computer majors with a knowledge of the history of computers or even with encryption methods. But I do acknowledge that learning programming language is a worthy choice if there was a foreign language requirement at LU.

    Given the slow pace of the curriculum review and what I perceive as the stranglehold of the Illinois Articulation Agreement, I’m not particularly optimistic that your ideas (or mine) might be implemented any time soon.

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