McLaughlin: Coding is the skill you didn’t know you needed

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Will McLaughlin, Columnist

Haoqi Zhang’s class offered this fall, An Introduction to Computer Science for Everyone, has nine available seats. Further down the class list in CAESAR, Introduction to Computer Programming, taught by John Tumblin, has 10 spots open to students who can figure out time travel and show up for the first day of class. In fact, every single course offered by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has room for more students. Although it’s impossible to say whether the classes were full and then saw students drop, the basic point remains: With technology playing such a large role in our lives, it’s curious that a top school is not funneling more students to at least grasp the basics.

Other institutions have taken notice. At Harvard University, the institution that gave Mark Zuckerberg to the world, introductory computer science course CS50 was the second highest-enrolled course this fall. These students are likely not computer masters after the class, but they are on their way.

A cursory knowledge of code can help an entrepreneur start a website. Scientists could write a script to automate parts of an experiment. And even Ph.D.s might need to create a personal website describing their academic lives. You might not be an expert after a single class, but at least you will know what is going on under the hood. A little string of code goes a long way.

I bet many who start a computer science sequence are quickly turned off by the sterile lectures and difficult assignments. Especially at Northwestern, where the quarter system favors rote memorization over subject mastery, students simply do not have time to take their time. Computer languages, like foreign languages, require attention and deep interest to get right. The solution here would be to audit a course or take it pass-fail.

I have started to learn to code this fall and regret that I did not consider computer science courses until then. It is particularly unfortunate because I do not have a great deal of freedom in my schedule to take more classes before I graduate. Whether through formal or informal instruction, students would be wise to grasp the basics of at least one language such as Python, JavaScript or HTML. It could be a waste of time, or it could be the best decision you make. For me, taking the red pill has been a worthwhile journey.

I worry that students hear a barrage of advice about courses. Take Chinese; it’s the future! (I did, and it’s not.) Study Arabic — you can be a diplomat! (First station: Libya — if you’re lucky.) Pursue engineering — you’ll get a job! (Your roommate who didn’t take Engineering Analysis I-IV also will.)

But where this advice has fallen short (bets on future economic and political relevance), a foundation in computers still makes sense. But consider typing. It might have seemed silly to learn how to type at some point, a trivial skill for specialists perhaps, but its importance is arguably unquestioned today. To me it’s so trivial it is not even a skill anymore. Our children might not ask us for help on their math homework. Instead they’ll ask us a problem from a robotics assignment, and we’ll be none the wiser.

Will McLaughlin is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].