Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What I Learned in College

For various reasons my thoughts lately have been on my college experience. Now I graduated in 1975 which was a few years ago. A lot has changed in computing and computer science in that time. But those four years were quite foundational to my whole career. In fact without those four years I would probably never have gotten into computing in the first place. As I said it was a different time.

In the 1970s there were few computer science departments in universities. My college, Taylor University, had a computer science department of sorts but no computer science major. I took my first CS course to meet a general education credit. A professor who make it interesting, gave lots of projects, and was a really great person gave me the opportunity to get hooked. I patterned my own teaching in part after his. I like to think I have gotten a few others hooked over the years. So things started there.

Taylor was, and is, a smaller school. While my wife at a large public university saw her school’s computer at a distance I had hands on experience. My last couple of years I had my own key to the science building and computer lab. This was not the sort of thing that was common back when a university would have one computer lab to hold the one computer. At smaller schools though it was an option for serious students. I left with a lot of hands on experiences that my peers from big name schools did not have. Better than that I got to try a lot of things and learn a lot of things that we not taught in class. This was a big boost in my early career.

Two other, and related things, I learned in college were debugging and grading. Related? Oh yes. You can’t grade unless you can tell what is working and what isn’t. I some experience in these things in two ways.

Without graduate students, we undergraduate students worked in the computer labs as lab assistants. A lot of this time was spent helping students debug their programs. As a result of that experience I (and the other lab assistants) get to see a lot more errors and learn a lot more about finding and fixing bugs. Learning from other people’s mistakes is a true gift for which I am grateful.

We also spent some time making a first pass of student projects before the professor graded them. We learned to deal with rubrics, spot missing features and attributes, and basically learn to tell good code from bad. I review my students projects in many of the same ways today. Some things do not change.

But that debugging stuff. Wow! That is hard to teach in a class. In fact I doubt anyone teaches a dedicated course in debugging. People are left to figure that out themselves and yet for many people it is the most valuable thing they can learn.

The key thing I take from my reminiscing is that my learning combined classroom and practical out of class opportunities. Would I have had the later if I’d lived off campus or if I’d viewed learning as just something to do in class and partied a lot? Probably not.  University is a lot about what you make of it. If you view it as parties interrupted by classes you’ll probably not get a lot out of it. If you think you can max out on learning by just taking a lot of formal classes you’ll probably miss opportunities.  If on the other hand you view “school” as a holistic learning experience with classes as framework and out of class interactions and involvement as important and valuable you can get a lot out of it. I don’t think college is dead. I think it just needs to be down right. And that is still a possible thing.


Garth said...

My first programming course was FORTRAN in 1970-71. Punch cards. It was fun. After a 6 year break in education with a job then the USMC I figured I would dive back into programming in 78. This time I got a very bad taste. Java with a really poor instructor. We started with maybe 100 in the course. About 25 of us finished the semester. Bad. I bailed out of the CS program into education. Then I hit a math methods course where the prof was big into Apple IIes, Logo and Piaget. Cool. So my college experience was very mixed.

The quality of the instructor makes such a big difference on direction in college. One bad one early and it can quickly lead to a change in major. I still hate Java.

Alfred Thompson said...

I first learned Java while trying to stay one lesson ahead of my students. I worry that was a bad experience for the students. I don't really know Java idiomatically.

Brandy Lehmann said...

Get a closer look at computer science careers to decide which profession do you want to get.