A "good enough" mom muses about alpha moms, adoption, computers, the State Of The World, Internet quirkiness, and the Kosmik All
Thinking, doing--theory and practice

Richard Querin has a post up discussing the balance between "thinking"--the theory side--and "doing"--the practical side, when it comes to university educations.  Taking a stand, he comes squarely down in the middle (as do I).

It seems that the view of universities as commercial enterprises, with a "customer" to satisfy--the student--is not limited to Small Mountain University.  There's a certain amount of grumpage amongst the professorati at SMU about the current approach; they feel that the students are being catered to by dumbing down curricula, by snazzing and jazzing up the core courses, and that the view of education as a goal in and of itself is disappearing.  Nowadays, the education is marketed as a means to an end:  that lucrative job, be it in business or genetic engineering or construction.

Richard points out that the year he spent working in construction was much more valuable to him, as an engineer, than most of his degree work.

Yet, at the same time, I have to sing the praise of the theoretical.

My degree from Cal State Hayward was in computer science, not computer information systems.  Typically, a CIS degree comes from the business school at a college or university, while the CS degree comes from the math department.  So the CS degree includes an awful lot more theoretical courses, while the CIS degree focuses on real-world applications and includes (ugh!) economics and accounting.

Currently, I wist after some background in accounting; I am working on interfaces with our accounting system, and when the accountants talk I am lost in a jungle of double-entry bookkeeping, trying to figure out which bucket which dollars should be dumped into.

On the other hand, shortly after leaving school with my brand-new degree still hot off the press, I discovered the value of some of that "theoretical" stuff I had been learning.

I was on a small team working on a (then) very cutting-edge on-line backup system.  One member of our team was a guy who had worked for many years in an auto manufacturer's IT department, programming their accounting system.  Unsatisfied with the money he was making in our little company, he moved on, and I took over some of the user interface he had been working on.

One piece was a listing of files that had been uploaded, sorted alphabetically by name.  Previous programmer had tested it out and all worked hunky-dory--until we started working with hundreds of filenames.  Then, suddenly, the screen started working slower and slower and slower.

What on earth was going on?

I delved into it.  Carefully stepping through the code, I found that the place where it bogged down was in the sorting routine.  So I took a look.

Now, I'm not going to bore you with techie talk here, but the least efficient type of computer code to sort anything is called a "bubble sort".  It's also the most obvious, and also extremely easy to code.  There it was, turning that display screen slow as molasses.  Oh, it worked just fine on 10 lines of test data...but when confronted with more, it got progressively slower and slower.

In one of my theoretical courses, we spent eight weeks examining different sorting algorithms.  Our professors beat "don't use 'bubble sort'!" into our heads.

So there I was, fresh out of college, faced with code that someone who had been working for 20+ years had written, and realizing that--ohmigosh--that theoretical hooey actually meant something, and was useful.

I pulled out my textbook with the four chapters on sorting algorithms (yes!) and mathematical discussions of the efficiency of each one, dived in, selected one that had a much higher efficiency rating, coded it in, and suddenly that screen--that had bogged down on a mere one hundred items to sort--ran lickity-split on thousands of items.

At the same time, I've learned many things on the job that were never covered in my courses. 

So, like Richard, I come down squarely in favor of both thinking and doing, theoretical and practical when it comes to college coursework.  But how do you convince students--who see themselves as "customers"--that, yes, the boring theoretical stuff can also be important?  Because they've been sold on the idea that Biology Is Fun--so much so that it's hard to realize that you need to learn the basics, boring as they are, first.

While talking with one of the other moms waiting outside the ballet class, she and I heard some kid talking about math homework.  She turned to me and said, "Y'know, I always heard people asking, 'What good is this stuff?  Am I ever going to use it?'  And I just think--I use it.  Every.  Day."

I do too.  But it's hard to say how, when it's woven into what I do all the time so much that it becomes unconscious.  The same with my theoretical courses--I realize that I use bits and pieces from them all the time in my everyday work.

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posted by Kate @ 12/02/2006 08:58:00 PM  
5 Comments:
  • At 12/03/2006 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Johnny said…

    Good thoughts. I've also found a bit of a split between academia and the real world. First, academia has the leading edge in some areas with some professors for some graduate students. Typically, most profs don't "bring down" the high tech stuff down to sophmores and juniors because they're not ready to absorb.

    But in the real world, there are lessons you can only learn in the real word - like taking over code for another programmer and finding out that they're only doing things a certain way because that's all they know - exactly like in your case.

    One of my plans is to teach "real world" programming in community college after I've been forced out, errr, retired from the Mega-lo-corp.

     
  • At 12/03/2006 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Granny J said…

    Sounds like what you need from the accounting side of things is a good glossary plus a balance sheet with arrows and captions.

    Math is beauty; by me,accounting is mere number juggling, tho yr grandad did say that there were some interesting games tucked in the interstices.

     
  • At 12/03/2006 01:05:00 PM, Anonymous bh said…

    I agree with you and the original post. Most academics that I talk to would too. The good students I talk to a few years after they graduate say exactly what you do, as well.

    Undergraduate university education should be about learning tools and intellectual frameworks to think through and solve problems, and to learn how communicate the answers clearly. Much of what you learn---in and of itself--is not that valuable. Instead, it's the thinking and analytical skills you learn by having to take the courses that matter. And the ability to read and learn new stuff to solve problems as they come up in practice.

    It is not job training, it is training in thinking. But you need the real world stuff to put it into context. Our students generally get industry internships over the summer. The good students quickly realize how theory helps practice, and vice versa.

    The employers care about thinking skills and communications skills as much as technical skills. For example, investment banks are full of people with undergraduate degrees in philosophy, math, statistics, and economics, rather than business or finance.

    (Feel free to email me and I can try to find a good accounting book for you to look at. Although where I work, no one can really explain our oracle accounting system to anyone--even the accountants.)

     
  • At 12/05/2006 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Space Mom said…

    I find a combination of these items. I've never ever had to use a mathmatical proof that I used to be able to do in college. Nor have I ever needed to program a partial derivative in the course of work. BUT, to have those things stored in my head somewhere is useful.

    I took an extension school program in CS and we spent an entire semester on useful and not so useful algorithms. I was thinking, so what did O-mom use instead of the dreaded bubble sort?
    :)

     
  • At 12/05/2006 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Kate said…

    O-mom used QuickSort. Anyone who is interested in the different sorting methods and how fast they work can go to this sorting demo; click on the little boxes of lines to see how each one works.

     
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About Me
Name: OmegaMom
Home: Southwest
About Me: Middle-aged mom of a 4-year-old adopted from China. Love science, debate, good SF and fantasy, hiking, music of almost every style. Lousy housekeeper. "Good enough" mom.
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