Scitech | Coding on campus and beyond

Should students learn to code?

In a Daily article on the importance of teaching kids to code published last year, we addressed the increasing prevalence of coding literacy in a technical society. Though it may be true that we are moving toward a society where computer science knowledge will be as integrated as math and English in the primary school system, coding literacy is even more important for university undergraduates as they prepare for the competitive, technologically advanced, and evolving job market. It’s difficult for students to make sense of the hype around computer science, programming, and ‘hacking.’ Long-standing barriers between technical and non-technical folks create misunderstandings that conceal the true breadth of technology and its essential applications across all academic fields. University students should be encouraged to harness the potential of programming to expand opportunities in their fields.

The question of what to do after graduating is a daunting one. Many fields have grim outlooks, and an undergraduate degree no longer has the power to secure a well-paying job. However, technical literacy can greatly improve job prospects. A paper by researchers at Oxfirst, an economics consulting firm, estimated that the growth in computer specialist jobs in the U.S. would increase at double the rate of all other jobs. Even outside of strictly computer-based jobs, many occupations expect candidates to have coding or technical knowledge. 

Coding is creating a buzz as a critical skill, with tech giants Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, politicians Al Gore and Michael Bloomberg, and countless other celebrities and public figures endorsing the ‘learn to code’ movement. Code.org introduces children and adults alike to the basics of code through games (including the notorious Flappy Bird) as well as tutorials that have them play logic games, engage with basic programming languages, and even create apps. This site is also the hub for the ‘Hour of Code’ challenge, which brings kid-friendly coding tutorials into classrooms around the world.

Coding hasn’t always been this accessible, as computer science has often been viewed as a kind of intangible ‘other.’ A lack of resources, education, and information on coding for non-tech students has built a boundary around computer science. For example, computers with relevant software to get started in coding are not as easily accessible for students outside of computing, and, even with the proper technology, there are fewer academic support systems to facilitate learning. The division has been perpetuated by tech-exclusive events that are elusive to other students due to an unfamiliar culture, technical jargon, and steep learning curve.

However, the walls are breaking down. Computer science, which once stood as an autonomous field, is now increasingly becoming integrated into everything we do. Mohamed Adam Chaieb, a U3 software engineering student, has witnessed the changing dynamics within industries. “Everyone needs to understand that things are changing,” he told The Daily. “Software is everywhere. People who don’t have an understanding are missing out on so much potential.” He echoes the growing consensus that some knowledge of computers and technology is absolutely essential to achieve progress in any field. Technical literacy is a prerequisite for the future.

Across academic fields, we are seeing the integration of computation and programming. Biology has embraced technology to give way to computational biology, which aims to model, represent, and understand complex physiological systems through algorithms and data processing. Recognizing the potential of programming within the field, McGill offers a joint major in Computer Science and Biology that trains students to apply computer and math skills in the analysis of large data sets. The interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology program also uses students’ foundation in coding to use data. The marriage of computers and biology has led to initiatives such as the Human Genome Project, which successfully sequenced the genome’s three billion base pairs, and has opened the doors to new, more powerful research.

Biology is not alone in the technology revolution. Nearly all fields now have an integrated coding component: linguistics uses sound analysis, language acquisition software, and machine translation; history implements databases and 3D artifact reconstruction; medicine relies heavily on scanning and imaging technology and record keeping software; environmental studies employs tracking devices; architecture uses modelling software. Coding is not just for programmers and engineers anymore.

Beyond academia, understanding code can help students understand the technology that powers their lives. From online course software to mobile applications, a basic knowledge of code logic can help you harness technology. Many aspects of the university studentís life could be simplified or clarified by a knowledge of code. Things like understanding Google search commands (like filetype options, AND/OR, or the use of quotation marks) can improve search results, and manipulating Excel documents with booleans and logic equations can make labs a breeze.

Even beyond practical usage, coding provides an alternate way of thinking. Employing logic through the mind of a computer forces rationality, brevity, and accuracy. Strong leaders harness interdisciplinary critical thinking by considering problems from within different mindsets (creative, mathematical, emotional, etectera) to form an optimized solution.

University students are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of coding literacy, and luckily post-secondary education provides an ideal incubator for coding acquisition. McGill offers numerous introductory courses to both general computing as it relates to society and to programming. Electives, minors, and joint majors are accessible as a complement to nearly any academic program, and provide an advantage when searching for employment. Students are also connected to a world of online resources to learn tangible, practical skills such as web design, script writing, or basic game development. The door to technological literacy is open to all.


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