Hawaii Students Have Trouble Seeing the Big Picture
UH Professor of computer science on the importance of learning about government, understanding civics.
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As a professor in computer science, I am very concerned about the reduction in Hgh School Social Studies requirements, including civics, currently being considered by the Board of Education as part of Policy 4540.
Why would an educator in the sciences not want to see more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects? Because I want to see the schools produce informed citizens, college students with a breadth of knowledge, workers who can succeed in a global society, and well rounded, articulate, and informed grown ups. Let’s think about these issues one at a time.
We live in a democracy. It is the responsibility of citizens to elect public officials, understand how to judge their performance, and hold them accountable. No matter what our political persuasion, we can all agree that politicians say anything to get elected and do anything to put a positive spin on information about their actions. We need our students to learn about government, understand civics, and be able to find, read, understand, and critically evaluate political issues and politicians’ statements and activities. They get these skills in civics and history classes.
At UH, I teach a course in introductory computer science. I see many students struggle and even fail in this class not because of their lack of mathematical or scientific knowledge, but because they have difficulty with reading, writing, study habits, ability to sustain attention and focus, ability to put historical events in computer science into any context, and ability to reason about a problem in a broad way.
In their college training, computer science students will have to grapple with how computing technology fits into the real world. They need to consider ethical issues like privacy, usability issues related to different types of people and different contexts of use, sociological issues such as the impact of computer technology on jobs, interpersonal issues such as working in groups, and organizational issues such as how to structure complex problems and plan work flows. There are technical aspects to these issues to be sure, but there are also more fundamental skills that can only be learned through reading, critical thinking, understanding history, and being knowledgeable about geography and other societies.
We receive feedback from both employers and alumni about how our students fare after graduation. One of the biggest complaints from both groups is not that the students aren’t technically competent, but that they are having trouble with the bigger picture. The most successful professionals in computer science, the entrepreneurs and people who change the field, are strategic thinkers who understand human behavior as much as they understand computer code or logic circuits. The most useful programmers are the ones who can sit with clients from almost any field, relate to them, understand what they need and how they think, and then translate these intangible things, typically via discussion and problem solving with a diverse group, into a creative piece of software. The type of learning that is often emphasized in the STEM areas is almost antithetical to this kind of creative, social, and collaborative activity.
Think about the fastest growing areas in computer science today and you will notice that they are all about communication and socialization. Mobile devices are the hottest things in hardware and social networking is the hottest thing in software. Imagine a device that you clip on your clothes that continuously records images of everything around you along with your comments and GPS information about where you are. This information is transmitted and stored continuously in “the cloud” and combined with the same type of information from everyone else. This allows you to stand in a spot and see who else has been there, what it looked like to them, and what they thought about it, but it also allows a stalker to see where potential victims linger and when they are alone and distracted. It allows police to get detailed, first-hand information about a crime from multiple perspectives, but it also allows a potential terrorist bomber to see where the most people congregate and what they are least likely to notice or comment on. Who would you like to have in charge of developing products and services using this technology, someone with a knowledge of history, an understanding of psychology and cultural norms, a familiarity with ethics, and the ability to imagine how this technology might be used in different ways, or a technically competent person who really never learned anything about the use of surveillance in past conflicts or law enforcement, who figures that ethical issues are somebody else’s problem, and who has a hard time imagining or even caring how different people might use the technology?
Some of the most interesting problems in computer science these days are grounded in social science. My students are always surprised to see that companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Apple hire a large number of anthropologists, ethnographers, psychologists, and other social scientists to work on their products. Such people are most valued in the strategic and research areas. Even the most hard-core computer geek in these companies will work with interdisciplinary teams and be expected to converse and collaborate with these social scientists.
Our children will live in the most interconnected global society that has ever existed. They will work in virtual spaces in real time with colleagues from all over the world. They will be bombarded with information from everywhere that they will need to assimilate, understand, and act upon. They will think nothing of working in several different countries and cultures throughout their careers. They will need the tools to navigate this multifaceted, multicultural, information-rich environment. These are not technical skills. They are social science skills and critical thinking skills backed up by an understanding of history, culture, civics, geography, and psychology.
I am all for the Board of Education beefing up STEM education, but not at the expense of the social science curriculum.
About the author:Scott Robertson is an Associate Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at UH-Manoa. He works in the areas of human-computer interaction and digital government. He is the author of over 50 articles and book chapters on human aspects of computing. Professor Robertson is the Principle Investigator on a National Science Foundation project in the area of social computing and political participation. He has served on panels studying electronic voting technology for the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a senior member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a Fellow of the American Psychological Society. He has an interdisciplinary background, with a B.A. in Social Science from University of California, Irvine and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from Yale University. He is a member of Aloha POSSE (Preserve Our Social Studies Education) and also an actor who appears now and the n on Hawaii’s many fine stages.
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