Introduction to Computer Science – as taught by BlogDailyHerald

Spooky

Spooky

BlogDH sent an ambassador from the humanities (yours truly) to sit in on a panel entitled “Never too late to take CS.” Many of us have dreamed of taking CS 15 with Andy van Dam, but then reality checks in: our schedules can’t accommodate it, we don’t think we can handle the extra workload, and most importantly – a lot of us are secretly afraid of computers. Computer-phobia isn’t a science fiction trope, it’s a very real affliction that plagues all of us who don’t understand why our Macbook suddenly stops working, or why our PC is so damn slow.

At BlogDH, we have suffered from confusion as to why sometimes WordPress decides that it hates us and doesn’t publish our posts. Our web masters/technology overlords tried to put it in terms we could understand: “There are little gnomes that live inside of computers, and sometimes those gnomes get drunk, and things stop working.” This is a photo our current webmaster, Joe Stein ’16, took of our old webmaster, Neal Poole ’13:

Just another day on the job.

Just another day on the job.

Going into this panel, my go-to solution for computer misbehavior was to call Stein ’16 on the phone in tears, and then rate in retrospect how drunk my gnomes were on a scale of tipsy, to black out, to requiring medical attention. Luckily, I soon realized I wasn’t alone, because 1/3rd of the people in the room raised their hand to the opening question “who has never taken a CS class before?”

Evidently, a lot of people were curious about the mysteries of computer science. Our fears were further quelled when one of the panel members, Ardra Hren ’15, admitted off the bat that she “was afraid of computers until sophomore year.”

The panel was composed of one graduate student, Betsy Hilliard, who went to Brandeis for Economics, a Masters student, Ben Leveque, who did not study CS in undergrad here, and four undergraduates who embarked on Computer Science uncharacteristically late: Ardra Hren, Brian Drake, Mackenzie Clark, and Sarah Parker (the last of which is still technically concentrating in Neuroscience). Before the panel started answering questions, there was this short montage:

The CS department apologizes for the outdated music (the video was made last year when “Thrift Shop” was still an acceptable theme song). Some choice quotes from the video include: “CS is for people who like rainbows and friendship” and “CS is for people who like free food.” The last one is particularly true, because the event had an awesome amount of free pizza and miniature Duck and Bunny cupcakes.

The questions that the panel answered fell into three broad categories. First, there were questions about the nature of majoring in CS. Second, there were questions regarding the logistics of CS. Third, there were a couple of miscellaneous, off-topic questions, asked primarily by me.

The Nature of the Computer Science Department:

What is it like getting of all the requirements done when you didn’t start freshman year?

According to Hren, an A.B. is “very doable”, and no one will judge you for not having an S.C.B. The difference between the two degrees is mainly whether  or not you end up having the time to accomplish the latter.

Does the CIT swallow up your life?

Mackenzie Clark said, “The CIT gets a bad rep… but collaborating with other students in your class is a really important aspect of CS, so being in the CIT is a lot more voluntary than it may seem.” Hren said she met more people in her CS 15 class sophomore fall than in all of her other classes combined. There is also the option to work via remote in the SunLab, and then you don’t actually have to be there!

What do you wish you had known about CS?

Brian Drake responded that “the majority of CS majors are way more ‘normal’ than the vocal minority.” Graduate student Betsy Hilliard noted, “People may talk big about how much they know and how long they’ve been coding, and then you’ll get a higher grade on a test than them.” Those sentiments were echoed when Clark added, “You don’t have to start coding as a toddler to be good at CS. If you’re having a hard time you’re not alone.” Hren finally commented, “I wish I had known that everyone felt as incompetent as me.”

Is there misogyny in the field?

Sarah Parker addressed this difficult question by articulating that “there are [fewer] girls, but [she hasn’t] experienced people treating her negatively because she’s a girl.” The panel was actually sponsored by WiCS, “Women in Computer Science,” so in some ways it was the perfect venue to field the question. The general sentiment from the panel was that although there is definitely a gender gap, the department is very conscious of it. They also emphasized that they have implemented big efforts and a support system for any problems that girls in CS may come across. The demographics of Computer Science are also shifting to be much more equal in gender representation.

Hren said that for her “Logic for Hackers” class, the textbook had an assignment to model gender as a binary, to which she just laughed. Come on, does that textbook even go here?!

Logistics:

Does it matter whether you have a Mac or PC?

The short, non-technical answer is no, it does not matter.

How much math do I need to know to code?

Some of the tasks require some math, like basic linear algebra or first year calculus, but very little math is used day to day.

What is it like applying to jobs with a CS background but not a CS degree?

Drake tackled this one: “It was difficult to manipulate my resume to get the interviews, but once I got them, I showed that I knew just as much as everyone else.” Another panelist added that the Brown CS department is well known, and that if you can emphasize your strengths and the classes you’ve taken, you should do well.

Which intro course could someone take to see if CS is right for them?

Initially, laughter erupted from the panel, until Hren addressed that “the problem with the department is that everyone has only taken one intro sequence, so it’s hard to say.” A concentrator from the audience piped in to explain that CS 15 and CS 17 are the main choices, and, though they approach the topic differently, you leave each about equally prepared for other courses. She suggested shopping both of them. There is also CS 04 geared towards engineers, and the new CS 08, which is a broader overview of topics in computer science.

What would you say is the difference between an introductory and intermediate CS class?

Drake claimed that “the problems are more interesting,” and Masters candidate Ben Leveque described how “in the beginning there is a learning curve, and although the problems you tackle in an intermediate course are harder, you have the basic tools to solve them and a certain comfort level.”

We also discussed how there is a lot of sharing of expertise online, and that if you work hard you can teach yourself to do basic coding. Also, in a way similar to human languages, once you pick up your first coding language, and learn the syntax, it’s easier to pick up others.

Miscellany:

What’s a bug?

The worst thing! Apparently, the term originates from a moth that got caught in the vacuum of an early computer, causing everything in said computer to malfunction. These days a bug just describes something small and annoying that makes your code not work when it should.

How do you feel about Humanities concentrators?

Drake said that there is definitely no stigma against them in the CS department, and that he tries to take one Humanities class a semester to keep him sane. Leveque added, “We just found this [coding] stuff more fun, not more legitimate.”

Where do they come up with the names for these code languages?

Leveque: “That’s a great question” (Thanks, Brian).

Drake: “They reach into a hat; his name is Phil.”

Overall, the event was a lovely experience, and everyone on the panel was funny and personable. The nerds CS concentrators even made this witty cover photo for their Facebook event:

I didn't realize Adele Nazeem was a CS concentrator.

I didn’t realize Adele Nazeem was a CS concentrator.

If you haven’t already shopped a CS class, check one out this fall. If you’re still completely disinterested, be nicer to your CS friends. Contrary to popular belief, they do not simply communicate in binary, and they keep the gnomes at bay. An important final note from the panel: PREREGISTER FOR CS COURSES! This way the department can enlist the proper number of Teaching Assistants!

Images via, via Joe Stein ’16, via and via.

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