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C'est la Z

As curricula changes, what's falling through the cracks?


Just a brief note to clarify a couple of things. As indicated in the comments, this post isn't about what's appropriate for HS CS. It's more about what kids have after they finish their education - be it high school, college, code school, or other.

Some of my thoughts are the results of pondering on the exacerbations of friends after interviewing people for entry level positions.

The two examples are just to illustrate the point.

Original Post:

I enjoy reading blogs. It's one of the ways I keep current. Not only in terms of what's going on in CS Education, but also trends in CS - academic or professional as well as on a range of other topics.

One of the blogs I enjoy is authored by Julia Evans. I don't know Julia, but we do have some mutual friends. I've enjoyed her blog. She does a nice job talking about any number of systems related issue. I've tried to leave comments a few times but for some reason, my comments always end up deleted or otherwise not showing up.

One recent post, one on concurrency got me thinking. Since the comment I left there didn't take, I thought I'd write about it here.

It's a nice post but the thing that caught my eye was when Julia said that she " didn't know what a semaphore was until I read this code and I was like OH THIS IS AMAZING AND SO USEFUL AND WOW." I was a little surprised, semaphores seem to be one of those basic concepts that you just know but that is, of course incorrect. I first learned about semaphores in my honors Systems class with my mentor, the late Robert Dewar. We started from test and set and worked our way up. I had two other undergraduate classes that at least mentioned the topic.

Then again, I knew that many undergrads would never get a good treatment of concurrency so I tried to build a bit in to the System Level Programming course I designed while at Stuy.

This got me thinking - according to her linked in, Julia was a CS major at McGill - a university that I hold in high regard but either semaphores were never covered or their treatment didn't make enough of an impact to be worth remembering. What topics do we cover in our classes that kids just let fall to the wayside and what topics do we end up losing as curricula change and we don't have an eye on the big picture.

One big one is memory management. When APCS and college 101 classes went to Java, memory management went out the window. Not a problem, as long as memory issues are covered in some other course. Unfortunately the don't seem to be. You can make a case that kids don't need to understand memory management or anything about garbage collection but I'd argue that while one might never have to do their own memory management a good CS person should have some understanding of what's going on under the hood or as my friend Gerry says "never use a technology you couldn't write yourself."

Another biggie that I lived through was the IBM PC era. Prior to the mid to late 80's when the IBM PC ruled the world, kids learned about CS on timesharing systems. Once the PC took hold, every kid learning programming or studying CS was working on their own machine. They had full access to everything and the machine just supported a single thread.

On the one hand, it was nice since you could easily play with low level programming and hardware but on the other hand, a hole generation didn't learn about the complexities of multiple users and multiple processes.

Early in my career I designed courses and only later did I realize that you can't just design a course, you have to look at the full arc of a students education.

I think it's interesting to think about what concepts are getting left on the side of the road and I wonder if the big players driving CS education spend any time thinking about this bigger picture.

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