Dean's Blog: Teaching computing to all

This is the first post of Dean Aaron Bobick’s new blog: The Observational Engineer.

Aaron Bobick
Computer science class at WashU

At WashU, we believe computing should be taught alongside the three R’s — reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Read my thoughts on why we believe a basic understanding of computation should be accessible to all.

Until recently, the basic skills that we’re all taught in elementary and secondary school have given us an adequate foundation to lead us through much of daily life. If you could read, you could learn and follow directions. If you could do math, you could manage your finances or have a successful business. If you could write, you could communicate clearly and advocate for yourself or others. And university education was often an extension of this approach, with most students studying some mathematics, science, and humanities to gain reasonable exposure to the discipline of their major.

But the world is changing so fast that these foundational elements of education are no longer enough. At a time when computers increasingly control every aspect of our daily lives – both on the job and at home – the lessons we teach students must adapt to where the world is going, not where it has been.

Because of this, computing education must be part of every core curriculum, from elementary school through college.

But teaching all students computing will require a major mindshift – mostly among educators, many of whom have never learned the subject themselves.

At WashU, the belief that a basic understanding of computation should be accessible to all, no matter her or his background, is reflected in our introduction to computing coursework. This course does not differentiate between STEM majors and any other student: it’s designed to be welcoming for any WashU student from any major.

Instead of using computing classes to weed out students, we believe we can empower students with computing skills.

We have two components to every introductory course to help eliminate certain misconceptions about computer science careers and real-world applications. Our “Studio Sessions” are based on the same learning experience found in an art or architecture course. Students sit with two or three other students and a TA for an open-ended discourse about computing challenges and questions. This format reflects the collaborative nature found in office environments and aims to address the incorrect assumptions that careers in computer science are isolated positions.

We further require students in the intro course to apply computing to other disciplines, such as mathematics, biology, gaming, and animation. This helps students understand how the basic concepts they learn are applied in other fields. In today’s digital economy, computation is fundamental to creativity, productivity, and ingenuity in every discipline and industry.

We’ve already seen positive results through a number of initiatives and programs as we work to be both inclusive and rigorous. For example, 30 percent of our computer science students are women, and across engineering and computer science, 42 percent of our first-year students are women or students from backgrounds underrepresented in the STEM fields. While those statistics are significantly higher than the national average, we must continue our focus to build a stronger, more inclusive pipeline and to advance computer science education for all students.

Every school has its own culture and context, and what works at WashU may not be universally applicable. But we’ve reached a point where every job from NASA to nursing requires a better understanding of computational processes and computer science.

The “nice-to-have” or “competitive-advantage” skill is no longer an option; it’s now a requirement. Any domain in which people make decisions, monitor situations or take action based on information has been dramatically impacted by advances in computing.

Professionals across industries will achieve the most success when they understand not only their job function, but also the technology now required to carry it out. Every one of our educational institutions must determine how it can embrace educating its students in computing.

Computer science education and experiences are also essential for our nation’s long-term economic success. As the explosive growth in Silicon Valley and other meccas of technology and computing has shown, the vast majority of innovation opportunities in the current and future economy depend deeply on computation. While the expansion of automation and artificial intelligence reduces the number of lesser-skilled jobs, it has the potential to create careers for those with backgrounds in computing. Our nation has always been one of technology consumers – but we must also be one of technology creators – and we need computational engineers, leaders, and teachers to address the widening skills gap and help foster a greater knowledge of computing across industries.

We’re at a crossroads within our educational system. Just as technology has changed the way we teach, we must now change the topics we teach. Computing has to be a fundamental skill we imbue in students from their earliest days in the classroom through to the college level to prepare students for careers. The next generations – who won’t know a world without connected, digital devices – should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to technology, not indifferently unaware of the computer science behind it.

Part of this post originally appeared in Fox News.