Shin: NU should encourage students of all disciplines to study computer science


Heiwon Shin, Columnist

Last spring, I took Journalism 201-2: Multimedia Storytelling, a required class for all journalism majors. There, I found the beauty and power of sound, pictures and video that words cannot capture. If it weren’t for my requirement, I doubt I would have taken the class, being the technologically illiterate person that I was — I only found out about the keyboard shortcuts for copying and pasting a year ago. I was pushed to face something new and I’m truly thankful for it, because I found my love for multimedia storytelling.

Fueled by the urge to learn more about how I could apply technology to my work, I decided to try new classes such as journalism with engineers and art with engineers. In my journalism with engineers class, we apply journalistic goals with computer programming technology to create useful applications for websites. My team and I are currently developing a web extension model to pull tweets from pundits and Reddit comments relevant to articles users read. It’s mind-boggling to realize the potential that the marriage between journalism and technology can bring. Before, I used to feel as if engineers and programmers existed on a different planet. But through working with them and learning about the processes and overall framework, I now know how things operate and how small steps are taken to create all the things we use daily that I took for granted.

It sounds simple and obvious, but actually experiencing it makes me more confident to pursue this intersection of journalism and technology for my career. I believe this experience can be expanded further to other majors, just as my art with engineers class is doing. It’s like the Gestalt theory: When you combine disciplines, the sum is greater than its parts. 1+1 does not equal 2, but something even bigger.

Northwestern should invest in creating resources and curricula to make computational thinking and computer programming available to a wider range of students and for a wider purpose.

It may be an exaggeration but it seems like everyone is either premed or majoring in economics or engineering because they are very useful and in demand. Computer science should be up there too because it’s a new kind of literacy that contemporary professionals need.

Already, introductory classes to computer science and computational thinking exist. But as computer science Prof. Ian Horswill says, there needs to be more faculty to teach it. Also, one or two introductory classes may not be enough for students to fully grasp computational thinking or programming. More importantly, many students may find it scary to try computer science. Learning a foreign language sounds like a solid challenge, but add a whole new dimension of a computer system and it can be pretty daunting.

Naturally, I first thought of proposing a new requirement — computer science and/or computational thinking — to increase technological literacy. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that in three years Chicago Public School students would make coding education mandatory requirement to graduate. True, not everyone needs to be programmers. But we can all profit from computational thinking, by knowing how to solve problems and understanding how the technology of search engines, emails and other software work. As Google puts it, it is a “21st century skill” that includes decomposition, pattern recognition, pattern generalization and algorithm design.

However, after talking to Prof. Rich Gordon and Prof. Larry Birnbaum, who lead not only the Knight Lab but also the journalism with engineers class, Innovations and News in Technology, I thought otherwise. Requirements could come across as forceful. Even before going to the class, students could be resentful or stressed, feelings that could possibly bring down the experience for themselves, their peers and their instructors.

Rather, we could build upon the collaborative classes between two or more different fields, such as the classes I’m taking now. Going even further, there can be certificate programs that allow students from different fields to come together to learn and pioneer through the new cross-sections.

College is about trying new things, but quite frankly, it’s easy to fall back on what’s familiar. It’s difficult to just plunge into a completely new field. Computer science could be your thing, but you may not know it just because you’ve never done it before. Even if you try it and you find out it’s not your thing, it’s still important to be literate in computational thinking because you’re living in a world that is built by it. NU is building new infrastructure such as the breathtaking new music building, but what it should also be building is new computational thinking infrastructure within all curricula.

Heiwon Shin is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].