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20 May 2022

Programming is intrinsic to computer science

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Simon Peyton Jones

In their second blog, based on the white paper, Practical Programming in Computing Education, the NCCE Academic Board members explain why practical programming is intrinsic to computer science, not just an optional add-on.

The importance of programming is explicit in one of the four Aims of the National Curriculum for computing:

All pupils can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems.

But why? Why has programming been made such a key aspect of the National Curriculum for computing?  Because programming is not just a means to an end: it is a fundamental part of the subject itself, just as music performance is fundamental to music, and writing is as fundamental to English as reading. A computing education without programming would be a dry eviscerated husk, shorn not just of motivation and enjoyment, but of intrinsic content.

The whole purpose of computer science is to help us build things. As Fred Brooks put it: “the natural scientist builds in order to study; but the engineer studies in order to build”. He goes on: "I submit that by any reasonable criterion the discipline we call “computer science” is in fact not a science but a synthetic, an engineering, discipline. We are concerned with making things, be they computers, algorithms, or software systems." In reality, computer science is both science and engineering (and much more too). However, studying in order to build is a fundamental part.

So building things (programming) is not an optional add-on to the subject: it is a key raison d’etre of the subject itself.  Moreover, the key skills that are developed while learning to program are of value across the board: for a software engineer; for direct use in other subject areas; for those pushing the boundaries of what computing can do for us; and for all of us who want to understand the computing now pervasive in our world.  The Curriculum states "All pupils can analyse problems in computational terms."  But this is not pupils only, and it's not just about little programming problems -- it is any member of the population, when we  are struggling to understand the social and ethical issues involved in some new domain where computing is being applied.  The understanding and skills developed while we learn to program are used in such analyses.

Computer science can be considered as ‘the silent C’ in CSTEM, and it is through programming that the linkages with science, technology, engineering and mathematics are most strongly manifested.  There's more on this in our full white paper, but in summary:

  • Science. Programming uses the scientific method of observing the world, building models and testing them, and so provides an implicit science training; and it has opened up whole new areas of science through simulation and virtual experiments, and discovery via machine learning.
  • Technology. Programming enables mastery over technology by making the computer carry out your own instructions; and because of digital technology's ubiquity, understanding programming enables deep insight into the possibilities and limitations of existing and new technologies.
  • Engineering. While programs are less tangible than the bridges or circuit boards that engineers build, their impact on our lives is no less significant.  Programs are increasingly embedded within physical engineered systems and are essential to doing engineering.
  • Mathematics. There are strong parallels between computing and mathematics.  They are both modelling systems, used to represent and reason about aspects of the real world.  The thinking skills are related.  For example, abstraction is a key skill in both disciplines.  Programming can bring mathematics to life through the creation of artefacts that do things in the world.

It’s not just STEM subjects though! Programming links to, and can be a useful skill, in the arts and humanities too (in fact all other subjects). For example:

  • English. A key and often sadly neglected part of programming is that of documentation. Clear written explanations of what code does, and how, is vital to help limit the mistakes in large software systems and the maintainability of the code.
  • Design and Creativity. Programming and other forms of practical work are inherently creative. Good design is an important part of good programming. It is good design of the user interface, for example, that makes a program usable (or not).
  • Social sciences. A key step in developing software is to understand the problem you are solving first, and this requires understanding of problem contexts that often involve people and society. Social sciences methods such as interviewing people to understand their needs is key to real software development, for example.
  • Art. The virtual world provides whole new mediums and techniques for creating art. Programming is a vast new artistic toolset, whether used to explicitly program the artwork, develop programs that support doing so, or write artificial intelligence programs that create the artworks themselves.

Read the full paper, and comment on it on this CAS Discourse thread.