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Computer Science: It Is Not Programming But Problem Solving

I had the pleasure and opportunity to practice one of my favorite hobbies over the past two years, which is teaching. I’ve had the opportunity to teach several different subjects in the computer science field, from introductory courses to upper division courses, and I’ve seen a pattern in students that has been a headache for me, especially in the upper division classes.

One of the main surprising facts I noticed is that most students have little or no hands-on experience in software development, especially in upper grades. That is, they haven’t had enough opportunities to complete hands-on projects to improve and refine their programming skills in lower grades, and when taking courses such as software engineering, most of them lack the ability to create a fully functional system from scratch.

Now I can understand if this is the first year for the student and if he is just starting out and getting to know his first computer language and all the tools and environments that are available to him. And it is also understandable that there are different levels of students with different levels of skills and motivation. But being in an upper division course and still being uncomfortable with the basics scares me a little.

What I also noticed and honestly surprised is that most students who start in the computer science program have no idea what computer science is. Now, maybe that’s an unfair statement, you can say they’re still unsure or undecided, but I think that’s not the case. If you are in a science or engineering program, there are certain things the student needs to know, such as a good foundation in math and physics.

Again perhaps, the question is how do we prepare our young people in their first years of life.

For example, as part of the computer science program, students must take a course in software engineering. I’m not going to discuss what software engineering is, but to enlighten you, here’s a description from Wikipedia: Software engineering (SE) is the application of a systematic, disciplined, and quantifiable approach to the design, development , operation and maintenance of software, and the study of these approaches; that is, the application of engineering to software. The term software engineering first appeared at the NATO software engineering conference in 1968 and was intended to provoke thinking about the perceived “software crisis” at the time. Software development, a widely used and more generic term, does not necessarily subsume the engineering paradigm.

In such a class, students should have a good understanding of at least one programming language such as JAVA, C#, C++ and etc… as well as a good understanding of object-oriented methodology and design. In addition to programming skills, the student should have a good understanding of data structures and algorithms. Remember, a Program = Data Structures + Algorithms! It would also be helpful if students had some knowledge of databases etc.

These are just a few of the technical skills they need to possess and hone on a daily basis. The most important aspect of IT has nothing to do with programming JAVA or C# or anything like that. It has to do with the ability to ANALYZE and SOLVE PROBLEMS!

In my last class, I created six different teams with three members each. Each group had the opportunity to come up with their own project to design and develop throughout the course, and if they were unable to do so, I would assign them a project.

The students were very good at defining their own projects. We had a good variety of projects ranging from hospital management system, hotel management system, iPAD application for retail and inventory, Android application for simple 2D game, web-based learning management and a Windows-based application creating custom MIME.

Now was the time to start the real deal! Let’s start designing our product!

Throughout the course, students were responsible for defining: requirements and specifications, design and implementation, and finally testing and publishing (demo) of their software project.

What surprised me was that most students didn’t know where to start! Given a particular problem, how could one take it and dissect it into smaller parts so that it can be solved in small portions and come out with the final divide-and-conquer solutions!

As mentioned, some teams did a really good job every step of the way, and others started low and then increased their effort and efficiency along the way. As you can see the projects themselves are somewhat complex for students and all require knowledge of good user interface design, object oriented design, database design and, mostly some kind of network communication!

Some students didn’t even have any programming skills and, in fact, they didn’t really care to invest the time to learn it! Rely mainly on their peers for the technical aspects of the project! Now, we shouldn’t expect every person to be a guru, but they should at least show some interest and have some personal motivation to learn on their own.

Overall, the majority of the students in the class were hard workers and they really put a lot of time and effort into their respective projects. Most of them wanted to learn and be challenged. They simply lacked the necessary skills before taking this course.

There was a lot of involvement for the students in this particular class, and it put a lot of pressure on the students to push themselves and become motivated and independent. And that’s exactly what my goal was not only in this class but in all of my classes. I want my students to push harder, think bigger, and explore more areas and ideas because that’s the only way to grow and be competitive later in their professional careers.

I myself am learning better ways and methods to teach and interact with students with each passing term. I hope that the students also make the necessary effort to broaden their horizons not only during class, but also outside of class!

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