Computer Science & IT are hardly “traditional” disciplines of study. They are only about six decades old. In contrast, mathematics, physics, and chemistry and some of the disciplines like mechanical engineering & civil engineering are a lot older. Computer Science is an emerging discipline. There is one striking difference I see between the students of computer science and say, of mathematics or physics. Students of mathematics or physics take great pride in scientists who have made breakthrough progress in these disciplines. These scientists have inspired generations of students by being their role models.
So we have people like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkins in physics, and Srinivasa Ramanujan and Pierre-Simon Laplace in mathematics. In Computer Science, too, there have been great personalities. But alas, very few students can name these persons and state what they have contributed to Computer Science.
The good news is that they know about Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds and Steve Jobs. The not-so-good-news is that they may not have heard of John von Neumann, John Backus, Alan Turing, Alan Kay or Donald Knuth. Very few can articulate the major contributions of each of these persons. The sad fact is that the students of computer science do not spend enough time and energy to learn about the greatest computer scientists and their contributions. A large number of teachers do not bother to provide this information in class either out of a misguided focus on “completing the syllabus” for the course or out of pure ignorance.
Why should you know about the greatest computer scientists and their contributions? What benefit will I get in investing my time and energy on this activity? Would I not be better off studying my prescribed syllabi and crack all examinations? Would I not be better off becoming more competent in some of the disciplines of computer science rather than know about the history of computer science?
All these questions are valid. None of them are trivial or improper. To question is to begin an inquiry and that is a good trait. After your intense inquiry, I really mean “intense inquiry”, if you do come to the conclusion that knowing about the greatest contributors of computer science is indeed detrimental or inconsequential to your progress, you are welcome to focus on what you think will be best for you. The teachers amongst you must do this inquiry too.
Learning about the greatest personalities provides the context for our learning. Reflecting on the contributions and lives of iconic figures provides an opportunity to appreciate the culture, significance and relevance of the discipline. It enables one to develop a panoramic view of the discipline rather than a tunnel vision. I think that like in all disciplines, having a role model in computer science & IT helps.
Are our students aware of the immense contributions of great computer scientists like Edsger Dijkstra, Alan Kay, E.F. Codd, Niklaus Wirth, Alan Turing, Donald Knuth, or Barbara Liskov? Can’t we as teachers make our lectures less insipid by providing inspiring context through reference to interesting personalities, their contributions and their lives?
Watch this space, folks!