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SCHOOL-IT  June 2010

SCHOOL-IT June 2010

Subject:

Re: Beginning Programming Language

From:

Stephen J Cavrak Jr <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

School Information Technology Discussion <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 10 Jun 2010 12:34:59 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (75 lines)

Quoting Charles MacFadyen <[log in to unmask]>:

> Since few of the students from the class end up taking the exam,  
> we're re-considering whether Java is the way to go. I'd love to hear
> what others are doing.

Interesting question. It made me wonder what MIT is doing (UVM has  
introductory programming courses in C++, Java, and MatLab ... ). What  
I found was an interesting blog posting that I'll pass on ...

<quote>

Why Did M.I.T. Switch from Scheme to Python?
http://danweinreb.org/blog/why-did-mit-switch-from-scheme-to-python

I?ve been seeing mail and blog postings, particularly from people in  
the Lisp community, why MIT has switched from using Scheme to Python  
in the freshman core curriculum for the department of Electrical  
Engineering and Computer Science.

At the International Lisp Conference, Prof. Gerry Sussman gave a short  
impromptu talk explaining the new freshman curriculum.  Just to get a  
second opinion, I later called Prof. Jacob White, one of the designers  
of the curriculum and lecturers for the core courses.  (Digression:  
Jacob and I have been close friends since I was six years old!)  He  
confirmed Gerry?s description.

Asking why they changed languages is, in some sense, the wrong question.

The freshman software engineering course, since 1985, has been based  
on the book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (known  
as SICP), which uses Scheme.  The course is now nearly thirty years  
old.  Engineering has changed quite a lot in thirty years.  Since  
1995, Gerry and his co-author Prof. Hal Abelson have advocated  
changing the freshman curriculum radically, not basing it on SICP.

In 1980, computer engineering was based on starting with  
clearly-defined things (primitives or small programs) and using them  
to build larger things that ended up being clearly-defined.   
Composition of these fragments was the name of the game.

However, nowadays, a real engineer is given a big software library,  
with a 300-page manual that?s full of errors.  He?s also given a  
robot, whose exact behavior is extremely hard to characterize (what  
happens when a wheel slips?). The engineer must learn to perform  
scientific experiments to find out how the software and hardware  
actually work, at least enough to accomplish the job at hand.  Gerry  
pointed out that we may not like it this way (?because we?re old  
fogies?), but that?s the way it is, and M.I.T. has to take that into  
account.

The new approach also has the big advantage that it combines computer  
science with electrical engineering, whereas the old one taught them  
as entirely separate disciplines.  This way, students see how they  
interrelate.  Also, as Jacob points out, some of the same  
macro-principles apply to both software and hardware, and the students  
see this illustrated.  There is extensive lab work, making robots and  
mobile applications.

It just so happens that the robotics substrate software that comes  
with the system they?re using is programmed in Python.  Similarly, the  
mobile software environment is based on Python.  (Or, at least, the  
original plan was to use such a substrate, although it may have  
changed for various business reasons.)

Changing programming languages was absolutely not a goal of the  
curriculum change.  It was merely the result of the consequences of  
various decisions.  We can always discuss how it came to be that the  
robots and mobile devices are using Python instead of some other  
language, but that?s not the question being addressed here.  M.I.T.  
has nothing against Scheme. (And, of course, M.I.T. does teach classic  
software engineering, later in the curriculum.)

</quote>

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