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C'est la Z

A new first language? What’s the follow up plan?

This morning, Mark Guzdial wrote about Stanford possibly moving away from Java as their intro language. This comes on the heels of a semi-regular thread on one of the lists I'm on asking about what languages are used at assorted colleges around the country. Invariably the Pascal -> C++ -> Java progression of APCS turns up in these threads.

There are plenty of arguments to be made both for and against pretty much any language or platform. There's no single best universal answer. Each choice giveth and each choice taketh away.

What I'm really curious about is who's looking at intro languages in the context of complete programs or even complete educations that could span multiple institutions.

Early language choices can make a big difference in engaging and exciting newcomers but there are ramifications later on that few seem to consider.

Take the APCS change from C++ to Java. It removed memory management from the first year course. It also simplified issues relating to pass by value vs pass by reference (or, rather, passing address by value), bought much more strongly into OOP and moved more towards using built in implementations of data structures like Lists rather than rolling your own.

Removing memory management from the first year course in and of itself isn't a problem as long as it's taught and taught effectively somewhere later on. It could be argued that "memory is already covered in our required systems course." That could be the case, but there are many concepts that kids don't get the first time around. Is an institution that covered memory management in CS1/2 and then came back to it in a later Systems course giving their students the same understanding now that they've eliminated the CS1/2 experience?

What about OOP buy in. Personally, I've never been a big OOP fan but that's neither here nor there. What I have found is that depending on how a student is exposed to programming in CS1/CS2 can have a big influence on how they approach problems later. Did the move to Java cause more of our students to try to use shoehorn OOP into a problem that really shouldn't be approached in an OOP manner?

I suspect that the use of built in data structures has had a negative impact. A few years after the switch to Java, I was talking to a senior tech worker. He was having a bad day - interviewing potential internees and full time engineers. My friend was complaining that the kids couldn't come up with solutions to what he thought were pretty straightforward questions. He felt that had the kids actually implemented algorithms like the nlogn sorts rather than just learning java .sort method and just talking about the algorithm they'd be better prepared. I've heard this sentiment repeated over and over throughout the years.

This is not to say that Java is a horrible language or horrible for teaching - that's another debate. The point is that you can't just look at the intro class and who it draws in. You have to consider how it will prepare students for the next level and you have to look at the big picture – will our students get everything they need by the time they leave us.

Many schools have moved to Python. Will that effect students take on type systems later on? Will the flexibility and constructs like list comprehensions make it harder to teach recursion since there are "easier" ways to do it?

None of these are really problems so long as the CS1/2 (or even CS0) isn't taught in a vacuum.

I fear, however that too often we're paying attention to the intake of the pipe and not so much the output.

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