January 20, 2009

Rebooting Computing!

Eugene Wallingford has some great conference notes from the recent Rebooting Computing Summit.

The Summit has a manifesto, which begins:

It is a time of challenges for the computing field. We are tired of hearing that a computing professional is enrollment to degreeTaulbee Survey, the Computing Research Association:little more than a program coder or a system administrator; or that a college or graduate education is unnecessary; or that entering the computing field is a social death. We are dismayed that K-12 students, especially girls, have such a negative perception of computing. We are alarmed by reports that the innovation rate in our field has been declining and that enrollments in our degree programs have dropped 50% since 2001. Instead of the solo voice of the programmer, we would like to hear from the choir of mathematicians, engineers,and scientists who make up the bulk of our field.

Eugene was there and has some great posts on his feelings and reactions to the conference. I'll highlight only a very small portion of his comments, all of which are well worth reading.

Notes on the Rebooting Computing Summit
One particular comment made the first morning stood out in my mind. The gap between what people want to make with a computer and what they can reasonably make has widened considerably in the last thirty years. What they want to make is influenced by what they see and use every day. Back in 1980 I wanted to write a program to compute chess ratings, and a bit of BASIC was all I needed. Kids these days walk around with computational monsters in their pockets, sometimes a couple, and their desires have grown to match. Show them Java or Python, let alone BASIC, and they may well feel deflated before considering just what they could do.

Computing creates a new world. It builds new structures on top of old, day by day. Computing is different today than it was thirty years ago -- and so is the world. What excited us may well not excite today's youth.

Rebooting the Public Image of Computing
One of my table mates told us a story of seeing brochures for two bioinformatics programs at the same university. One was housed in the CS department, and the other was housed with the life sciences. The photos used in the two brochures painted strikingly different images in terms of how people were dressed and what the surroundings looked like. One looked like a serious discipline, while the other was "scruffy". Which one do you think ambitious students will choose? Which one will appeal to the parents of prospective students? Which one do you think was housed in CS?

Sometimes, the messages we send about our discipline are subtle, and sometimes not.

Too often, what K-12 students see in school these days under the guise of "computing" is applications. It is boring, full of black boxes with no mystery. It is about tools to use, not ideas for making things. After listening to several people relate their dissatisfaction with this view of computing, it occurred to me that one thing we might do to immediately improve the discipline's image is to get what currently passes for computing out of our schools. It tells the wrong stories!

Rebooting Computing Workshop Approach Redux
Personally, I found the process to be worth at least some of the time we spent. I enjoyed looking back at my life in computing, reflecting on my own history, reliving a few stories, and thinking about what has influenced. I realized that my interest in computer science wasn't driven by math or CS teachers in high school or my undergraduate years.. I had a natural affinity for computing and what it means. The teachers who most affected me were ones who encouraged me to think abstractly and to take ideas seriously, who gave me reason to think I could do those things. The key was to find my passion and run.

I really wish I could have been there, the public image of computing (and engineering) are topics that are near and dear to my heart. At the same time, I think that what the summit needed was probably about 20% of the people there to be people that aren't in computing (or math or science or engineering). They are the ones that have those important insights, not another bunch of CS types wondering why no one loves them.