As students feel increasingly threatened by what McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier has described as an in-coming “Technological Tsunami,” computer programming is an attractive option for students looking to learn a new skill or to strengthen their resume. Top Universities, a worldwide university ranking site, labelled coding as one of the essential skills that every graduate should have, and primary schools are starting to prioritize coding courses over teaching cursive. However, figuring out how to get started in programming can be both daunting and difficult.
Darlene Hnatchuk, director of McGill Career Planning Services, believes that while not everyone has to be a programmer, knowing how to use computers and understanding how they work is important and applicable to a variety of career paths.
“A lot of organizations and […] governments are pushing coding, and I’m going to be a little bit radical in saying that I don’t think […] all students have to learn how to code,” Hnatchuk told The McGill Tribune. “I think what all students should do, however, is at least have an understanding of computing and software.”
Hnatchuk recommended that students take at least one introductory computer science course during their undergraduate degree. Courses like COMP 202: Foundations of Programming, COMP 189: Computers and Society, and COMP 102: Computers and Computing allow students to learn the basics of programming, as well as its applications in the job market.
For students who don’t have room in their McGill degree to pursue an elective computer science course, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—free online courses offered on a range of subjects—are a manageable alternative. Coursera, edX, and Codecademy are popular online resources with a similar mission of making education more easily accessible. At the heart of it, students should seek out internships or work experiences that allow them to see what skills are needed and useful in their field of interest.
For Derek Ruths, associate professor of Computer Science at McGill, computer programming is an important skill. We rely on computers to problem-solve, and programming is essentially the method through which we communicate our demands. It’s a bit like learning a language—except that there is a shorter learning curve in computer programming than in human languages.
“Once you learn one programming language, it’s relatively easy to pick up another,” Ruths said.
There are hundreds of programming languages that are used for many different applications. R is popular among ecologists; ArcGIS has a wide range of applications in geography; and AutoCAD, CATIA, and Java are just a few of the programs that are used in engineering. In general, though, Ruths believes that learning Python is a good place to start.
“If someone learns [Python], they can really get into any field,” Ruths said.
In this way, any student—including Arts students—can and should familiarize themselves with computer programming. For instance, many jobs that political science majors are interested in are data-centric, which requires experience in programming. For young entrepreneurs, social media and web design experience are particularly useful.
Above all, what makes programming so valuable is that it introduces a new way of thinking that is complementary to the other skills that many students learn in class. For students from any discipline, research projects almost always require a basic knowledge of programming and statistics to sort and classify data. The practical uses of programming extend beyond school, with web design and app-construction as some of the most popular applications.
“There is a value in knowing how to think about problems in a way that is [systematic] and structured,” Ruths said.
Even with the value of knowing how to code, Hnatchuk said that students don’t need to know programming to find a job. But they shouldn’t be afraid to learn new programs, technologies, or platforms.
“It’s not such a mystery if you understand the background of how computing works in general,” Hnatchuk said.