MIT needs computer science requirement

A new GIR would equip students for the 21st century

Programming lies at the heart of a modern education. Whether it relates to engineering, finance, or even the arts and humanities, computation is used across all fields to achieve what was once unimaginable. Yet, despite its ever-increasing prominence in industry and research, MIT has not instituted introductory computer science as a General Institute Requirement (GIR).

I find it surprising that a good number of students graduate from MIT without any kind of programming experience. I have found that those not familiar with coding often feel strongly about keeping it that way. “Why would you burden me, a student in English literature, by wasting my time to learn programming?” I am often asked with passionate defiance.

Here is why. A few nights ago, a friend of mine spent hours manually filtering and copying data from an enormous, disorganized online database into an excel sheet to perform calculations. After watching his frustration grow exponentially with the number of rows in the sheet, I offered a slight intrusion: a 20-line VBA script that automated this exhaustive task. Upon seeing this in action, his eyes light lit up with fascination and intrigue. “Teach me!” he exclaimed.

Exaggerated anecdotes aside, it is fair to say that the current lineup of GIRs, which include mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, are complete only in the traditional academic sense. Few could argue, however, that in our typical computer-centric lives, drawing the Lewis structure of ammonium sulfate is of more practical benefit than knowing how to write programs that make everyday tasks simpler to solve.

MIT is investing extraordinary effort in re-defining the education of the future, but the focus thus far has been the online domain. In its wider context, this vision should also include a serious reconsideration of which skillsets are most critical to students of the 21st century — both on and off campus. Several courses outside of EECS do integrate programming technologies like MATLAB into class material and problem sets. Unfortunately, they can only offer brief, ad-hoc tutorials for the specific applications at hand, which do not help in developing the intuition and problem solving skills of a computer scientist. The same applies to the many CS-related IAP classes.

What is really needed is a full-blown introductory course for incoming freshmen. There already exists two fantastic computer science classes, 1.00 and 6.00, that attract a wide range of technical and non-technical students from across the Institute. In contrast to attitudes toward other GIRs, which many perceive to be a waste of time, many students feel genuinely satisfied after taking these classes, especially those who may never write code again in a professional context.

Are there administrative hurdles to be considered? Of course. I have been told that some years ago, an academic panel tasked with updating the GIRs proposed computer science, as well as probability and statistics, as potential additions. While the proposal went as far as to obtain a majority vote, it was ultimately rejected due to fears of over-burdening the already intensive academic life of MIT undergraduates. Furthermore, each department felt very strongly about preserving its own requirement, making a compromise impossible. Hiding behind the argument of “too many requirements” is neither realistic nor particularly convincing. I do agree that all the GIRs are important for a well-rounded academic experience, but it should be kept in mind that a large proportion of students have credit or ASE out of at least one GIR. Perhaps many more are already agile at coding.

The power of programming extends deep into the personal and professional world. It is time for MIT to ensure that its future graduates will all be able to tap into this power.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

First of all, programming ! computer science. Computer science, as Prof. Hal Abelson has famously said, is not about computers, and it is not a science.

Secondly, your argument could me made to justify mandatory biology courses (a person should know how one's body works), chemistry courses (chemicals abound in everyday life), automobile engineering (many people drive cars) etc. etc.

If anything, most MIT students need better speaking, reading and writing skills. But a proposal to make courses in English mandatory would cause more of a storm than any other suggestion.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

As one of your aforementioned whiny "English majors", I would like to remind you of the fact that nearly every MIT student complains about the HASS requirement. I feel very strongly about my right to complain when it's the other way around.

Emad William almost 9 years ago

Programming is such an essential skill now that it should be taught in all high schools. But since this is not the case, a programming GIR would definitely be a good idea.

A difference between a programming GIR and a normal GIR could be that any CS class would satisfy the requirement.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

1.... We have that... it is called the CI-H requirement (communication intensive humanities courses) and each student is required to take at 8 humanities courses. Also, each major requires students to take communication intensive courses within the department.... do you even go here?

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

2: Someone went to the wrong school.

Birkan Uzun almost 9 years ago

I totally agree! A programming GIR would prepare students better for any sort of science or engineering majors.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

Everybody complains when they're told they MUST do anything, but we all know that he's right, whether we admit it or not. I'm a senior and regret not having ANY knowledge of programming. The requirement would encourage those who shy away from delving into the world of coding and programming. One HASS-D subject could be substituted easily.

Anonymous almost 9 years ago

5- Actually, no, I didn't. I am in the Comparative Media Studies program which is the only program of its kind for undergrads in the nation, and I wanted to challenge myself academically. Just because we are mostly focused on math and science doesn't mean our humanities programs are not just as strong. Look at the programs for economics and linguistics (both #1 in the nation).


Anonymous almost 9 years ago

This piece raises a great point; CS has become so fundamental to our everyday lives that professionals, especially those graduating from MIT, should have good competency in utilising its underlying power.