Computer science = STEAM

At a recent meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, the main computer science association, the CEO of ACM John White reported on efforts to increase the visibility and understanding of computer science as a discipline. He asked “Where is the C in STEM?” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and there are many policy efforts to promote teaching and learning in these areas.) He argued that computer science is not just the “T” in “STEM”, as many might assume. Computer science deserves attention of its own from policy makers, teachers, and students.

I agree, but if computer science is not the “T”, then what is it? It’s funny. Computer science seems to span all the letters of STEM. It’s part science, part technology, part engineering, and part math. (Ironically, even though it’s called computer science, the “S” may be the least defensible.*)

The interdisciplinary nature of computer science can be seen throughout the university system: no one knows quite where CS departments belong. At some universities they are part of engineering schools, at others they belong to schools of arts and sciences, and at still others they have moved from one school to another. That’s not to mention the information schools and business schools with heavy computer science focus. At some universities, computer science is its own school with its own Dean. (This may be the best solution.)

Actually, I’d go one step further and say that computer science also involves a good deal of “A”, or art, as Paul Graham popularized in his wonderful book Hackers and Painters, and as seen most clearly in places like the MIT Media Lab and the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program.

So where is the C in STEM? Everywhere. Plus A. Computer science = STEAM.**

* It seems that those fields who feel compelled to append the word “science” to their names (social science, political science, library science) are not particularly scientific.
** Thanks to Lance Fortnow for contributing ideas for this post, including the acronym STEAM.

6 thoughts on “Computer science = STEAM”

  1. The following claim is not very defensible: “It seems that those fields who feel compelled to append the word “science” to their names (social science, political science, library science) are not particularly scientific.”

    By this token the School of Physical Sciences at Cambridge (to take one such random example) would be a bunch of quacks – do you believe that? I think whenever we use the term x science then we are really aspiring to come up with a scientific basis for x, and it is perfectly fine if the methods have their roots in another place but the question is one of focus – if you had to choose, would you prefer to prove one more theorem on asymptotics of something (even it is essentially irrelevant to the subject matter of x) or would you develop a model/algorithm/empirical experiment around the core of x? The former would be the preference in an original area while the latter justifies the spawning and growth of a new area.

    BTW, my own preference is for the term “computer sciences” (plural, indicating diversity), as in the name of the department I received my doctorate from.

  2. Anonymous: you’re right. I made too sweeping a generalization that is not defensible.

    To your specific points:
    *”Physical Sciences” is definitely an exception, though its typically called (at least in the US) just “Physics”.
    * I’d say creating an algorithm is more engineering than science, though it’s a gray area.
    * In general, I agree you’re right that x science is an attempt to treat x in a more scientific manner than previously. In that sense, it’s good.
    * Aha, good point: Computer sciences, plural, goes well with the interdisciplinary/diverse nature of the field.

  3. It is a tough one, because most developers are not scientist by nature, many of them have no training or just in it for the money.
    Some of them think they are engineers but there is really no engineering discipline in software projects. In fact many countries don’t consider them as Engineers.

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