Computer Science as a Science…Not a Computer

Dr. Brian Patterson teaching Computer Science

Dr. Brian Patterson, assistant professor of computer science and mathematics, joined the OU faculty in fall 2011.

I was very excited to join Oglethorpe and have a chance to reintroduce computer science courses to our curriculum. My main goal is to help develop and implement a computer science minor (with a major being a longer-term goal). Such a minor program existed in the past but ceased. Computer science courses were offered again to current students beginning in spring 2011. Other faculty and I have the opportunity to shape a computer science minor that is unique to Oglethorpe.

In pursuing this goal, one relevant question is: how does computer science fit into the liberal arts at Oglethorpe? After all, the word “computer” is in the name of my discipline so it seems reasonable to think of the class being about learning the keystrokes to perform an operation in Excel or how to fix a specific piece of computing hardware.

However, addressing computer science in that way is like addressing astronomy as “telescope science,” or molecular biology as “microscope science.” All three disciplines use tools in an essential way, but all three also include the use of multiple paradigms to solve problems, drawing upon reasoning, logic, analysis, hypothesis testing, and formal problem-solving methodologies. As a combination of mathematical theory, experimentation similar to what is used in the sciences, and design methods from engineering, computer science carves out its own niche. It is much less about the tools used than most people realize. In fact, holding some computer science classes in a computer lab is sometimes counterproductive—the students may be tempted to surf the Internet for noncurricular reasons more than we use the computers to write programs!

One definition of a liberal arts environment is an environment that focuses on developing a whole person, to prepare them for a life—not just a job—after college. It’s very difficult to live and work in a world like ours without using or at least encountering computerized devices. Thus, knowing the principles behind them is useful. Much like how the sciences joined the liberal arts when they became more relevant in a scientific society, it’s time to include computer science in our view of a liberal arts experience.

Computer science is fortunate relative to other disciplines in that, after taking a single course in introductory programming, the student is already more valuable to a potential employer. It is not usually because the student learned the exact programming language we teach at OU (Java) or that the employer needs somebody to do what we learned in the class. It is because the student has been introduced to how to work with a computer and utilize techniques of computer science in a variety of new situations.

Most managers realize that a professional computer programmer spends less than half of his or her day actually writing programs on a computer—the rest is spent thinking and discussing ideas with others. A class in computer science and a liberal arts education to back that up is invaluable for this planning and discussion.

On this topic, I highly recommend “Computer Science and the Liberal Arts: A Philosophical Examination,” by Walker and Keleman (at Grinnell and Swarthmore, respectively). I look forward to integrating computer science into the existing exciting areas of study available at OU as I help develop a computer science minor.

Dr. Brian Patterson, assistant professor of computer science & mathematics, joined the OU faculty in fall 2011. He received his BA from Carleton College and his MS and PhD from iowa State University. His teaching and research interests include artificial intelligence, computation and complexity, graph theory, machine learning, probability, and statistics.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 edition of Oglethorpe’s Carillon magazine.