How I Wound Up in Computer Science

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

How I Wound Up in Computer Science

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The Computer Science Women blog ( and on Twitter @Compsciwoman) has been running a series of posts by women  detailing how they found themselves in computer science. The posts have been interesting and I think many people, especially young women, will enjoy reading them. There are clearly many paths into computer science with some being more intentional than other. My own introduction to computer science was quite unintentional. One might almost say accidental.

First off you have to understand that when I was in high school and college it was a different time. My high school was exceptional (in the late 1960s) as there was a computer. Yes A computer. They told us that if we got a good grade in calculus as a junior we could take a computer course in our senior year. Math was not my strong suit and so other than that tour my freshmen year I never saw that computer again. Then I entered college and was looking at my general education requirements – the courses that everyone has to take to get a liberal education. I needed to take two courses from a list of math, science and computer science courses.

The first was easy. I took biology as I had taken that in high school and done well. I didn’t really want to take a math course though. As I said I was not overly fond of math. So I signed up for the computer course. I forget what it was actually called but it turned out the be an introduction to programming using the FORTRAN language. FORTRAN was one of the two most widely used languages of the day in the early 1970s.

I started off rocky. A friend of mine all but wrote the first program for me. The second we did pretty much half and half. The third one, as I recall, I mostly wrote for both of us. Even if I remember that one wrong (possible) after the third programming assignment I was hooked. This programming stuff was fun! Students at this small university (Taylor University which has in my opinion one of the best small school CS programs around ) gave students a lot of free access to the computer center – after 5PM – and all the punch cards we could use. I took on project after project and could not wait until the next computer science course. I did take just about all they courses they offered. I was also able to get a job as a lab assistant which meant helping other students learn how to do their projects. That was a great experience as well.

The environment in the computer lab was great for me. We actually had a good number of women in the program but most of them had a life outside of the computer lab. I think they were smart that way. Several of them went on to careers every bit as successful by any definition as any of the men in the program did. That’s something to learn from as well.

Today most students have access to computers. Through programs like DreamSpark students (direct link to the High School version of DreamSpark) have access to all sorts of free development tools as well. No more punch cards but compilers and libraries and online learning resources galore.  Even without formal course, though I really do like taking formal courses, students have resources to go beyond that is taught in class. And programs like the Imagine Cup give them a chance to create projects that not only get attention but show potential to literally change the work they live it. It’s pretty cool really.

For myself, almost 35 years after graduation, I am more excited about the computer science field than ever before. The best is yet to come. Are you in?

  • My first experience with computers was similar.  I just wanted to see what it was all about so it was punch card for a semester.  I then went off to fun and games with the Marines.  When I got back to college in the late 70's computer programming was eligible for foreign language credit.  I did not want to take a foreign language so FORTRAN it was. I always loved puzzles and programming was the greatest puzzle solving game I have ever had.

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