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Books & Recordings

Making Computer Science Your New Language Pamela Vong ’08 Pamela Vong ’08 says computer science is a useful language— and it should be introduced early. Interview by Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
masterclass (Photo: Illustration by David Cowles for Rochester Review)

Pamela Vong ’08

Home: Silver Spring, Maryland

“Tech Wizard” at InfernoRed Technology (using software engineering and user experience background to develop web and mobile apps); director, DC Chapter of Women Who Code; three-time winner, DCFemTech’s Powerful Women Programmers and Designers Award; invited participant, 2015 White House Tech Jam.

Notable apps: Science Channel GO and Animal Planet GO (Discovery Communications); Elmo Loves ABCs and Cookie Calls (Sesame Street); Be a Martian (NASA).

When my household got access to the Internet in the late ’90s, I was hooked. I wanted to learn how information was able to travel around the world and present itself as a website in my browser. So I started teaching myself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript when I was 12 in order to build websites. I also learned how to create interactive Flash websites and games by reading a book that my aunt gave me on Flash programming with ActionScript when I was 15.

Even as I taught myself these programming languages, I still had no idea what computer science was. I knew that two of my mom’s seven sisters studied it in college in the ’80s, and that it led to a decent career. But when I got to Rochester, I wanted to study physics and astronomy because I wanted to work for NASA and go into space, which was my childhood dream.

I changed my plans when I took an introductory course in computer science that was actually intended for non-majors. I already knew a lot of the material, because I had taught myself. But now I was learning the concepts in a more structured way. I also found it was fun to do the work for the course. And my friend Joe Stadolnik ’08 convinced me to join WRUR and be their webmaster after he saw me programming one of my Flash sites. I spent four years running the servers behind the station.

Studying computer science is a lot like studying English. Most of us who grew up in this country start learning English informally in English-speaking households or from television programs. We start with the alphabet and learn how to use it to spell words in English. When we go on to elementary, junior, and high school, we’re put through an education system that teaches the proper way to “use” English—through grammar, composition, and analysis of different writing styles, like poetry, essays, satire, and so forth.

We understand that studying English isn’t just about the language. Likewise, studying computer science is more than just learning programming or how to write code. It provides foundational knowledge on the proper way to use code. You learn the ways computers interpret code and how they’ve evolved over the decades to do so.

Computer science, like English, is an incredibly useful language, and it’s everywhere. Almost every industry— education, medicine, art, astronomy, political science, and so forth—has a problem that can be addressed with code. There are several groups in the world that are trying to solve global and local problems by encouraging people to learn to code. I recommend a documentary called Code Girl, which follows teams of high school girls who are trying to address issues relevant to their community, like drunk driving, access to clean water, and violence, by building apps.

A big difference between computer science and English, though, is that there are only a few people who are privileged enough to have studied computer science before entering college. There is so much to learn, and only exposing a sliver of the population to three to five years of it in college is not enough. Because there are so many opportunities in the world where computer science is needed and far too few people who can fill those roles.

Learning even just a little bit of coding provides skills in creativity and problem solving that are beneficial in almost all careers. And learning even a little bit about computer science is especially significant in today’s technological age. How the Internet works and how computers and mobile phones run apps are important for ours and future generations to understand because it is affecting so many aspects of our lives. How can we craft policy that regulates the use of technology when we don’t understand how the Internet, or the information that’s stored on devices really work?