Peanut Butter and Jelly

Finding the simple basics of a field with the power to change lives.

GUEST COLUMN | by Karen Panetta

credit-karen-panettaIn computer science class, students learn how to think in a structured and logical manner. This allows them to break down problems and develop algorithms that consider all scenarios, not just the obvious ones. When we design and write code to do a specific task, students are learning how to anticipate uses and misuses. It forces them to test for cases outside the intended functionality.

Computer Science Teaches Transferrable Skills

The courses that teach these skills are algorithm and software engineering. While most computer science curriculum reinforces theory by using programming languages to implement concepts or investigating computational efficiency, these programming skills are raw. The raw skills are what companies are looking for. But, as the languages change and new technologies are introduced, students will rely more and more on the fundamental concepts that will help them understand the next programming language.

Computer science has the power to change lives by creating simulations. It can replace animal testing, provide modeling for space exploration, create vehicle and safety analysis, and so much more. It has applications in robotics and medical imagery, too.

Years ago there were languages like COBOL, Fortran, Bliss, ADA, Pascal and now it’s C, C++, C# and Java. Learning these and operating systems has helped computer engineering students forge new paths into cloud computing and has given rise to the development of robust computer networks. The goal for the student is to build these networks with reliable computer power without the daunting complexities of underlying computer technologies.

Real-world Application Fosters Student Engagement

Today, computer science programs are taking a different, pedagogical approach in order to attract a diverse study body. And what has become clear is the importance of engagement early on in those programs. Without it, students have shown to make a quick exit, especially if the course overloads on theory or programming syntax without any relevant real-world application. Students want to learn how to program mobile apps, control robots and incorporate multimedia components in a useful way. They want to manipulate animations, produce colorful data visualizations and find creative ways to interact and accept input. It’s activities like these that stimulate the mind and build confidence around their abilities in computer science.

With the advent of cloud technology, millions of people have gained accessibility that they never had before. It has paved the way for new and emerging fields in computer science, like ethical hacking, cybersecurity and global health. And with each new field, students have the opportunity to step up and push the boundaries of computer science to combat resulting challenges or limitations. Those who stay current will find themselves in higher demand for opportunities after their educational career.

STEM is Bigger than You Think

We must do away with putting filters on our youth and telling children that they need to be the very best in math and science to enter computer science coursework. An algorithm can be taught and explained through the basic steps of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; although there’s no math in that equation, there’s logic and structure.

We must also appreciate that every child is different and has different interests. Just like some students may not like sports, some students may not enjoy writing programs to control robots. It is important to provide students with a variety of experiences and projects. Educators and parents need to be aware that youth will typically use a single negative experience to convince themselves that all the STEM fields are not a good match for their interests or that they are not smart enough to pursue those fields.

It is also very important to show the big picture of all of the incredible career opportunities that there are for computer scientists and others in the STEM field. We have to get rid of the notion that careers in this line of work involve sitting in a cubicle or dark basement programming all day and sacrificing a social life.

Computer science has the power to change lives by creating simulations. It can replace animal testing, provide modeling for space exploration, create vehicle and safety analysis and so much more. It has applications in robotics and medical imagery, too.

Computer science classes that incorporate these types of real-world solutions help to retain and attract more underrepresented groups of individuals, and that includes women. Together, with a global community of engineers and educators, ideas will be shared freely and opportunities will be available to anyone who wants to make their mark on the world.

Karen Panetta, an IEEE Fellow, is Editor-in-Chief, IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine and a Presidential Awardee for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education and Mentoring. Write to:

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