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Should Computer Programming Be Taught To All First Year Engineering Students?

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.386.1 - 1.386.6

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Paper Authors

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Byron S. Gottfried

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

I Session 1253 -— - ,-.. ..

—.. Should Computer Programming Be Taught To All First-Year Engineering Students?

Byron S. Gottfried University of Pittsburgh


This paper presents the pros and cons of the programming requirement for all first-year engineering students, based upon the results of a survey of the engineering faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. The results show that the computing skills required of most frequently required of. engineering students, in decreasing order, are: 1 Basic computer skills 2 Word processing 3 Spreadsheets 4 Equation solvers and programming languages A rational alternative is suggested, in which all students would be taught basic computing skills, technical uses of spreadsheets, and equation solvers during their first year. Some students would then receive instruction in a programming language at a later time, based upon need or interest.


For the past three decades, most colleges and universities have required their first-year engineering students to take a course in computer programming. The reasoning behind this originated in the 1960s, when it was widely believed that engineers must know how to program in order to solve engineering analysis problems on a computer. Since the 1960s, the world of computing has changed dramatically. Mainframe computers were replaced by minicomputers, which were later replaced by workstations and personal computers. Batch processing gave way to timesharing, and then to interactive computing using graphical user interfaces on personal computers and workstations. Computer prices fell by three orders of magnitude, while computers became faster and more reliable. Inexpensive software, some of excellent quality, became widely available for many different purposes, including engineering applications. Today most practicing engineers, and a growing number of engineering students, own their own computers and several supporting software packages. Today’s engineers no longer need to write customized computer programs in order to solve many of the problems that commonly arise in engineering analysis. However, many engineering educators have ignored this paradigm shift, and still believe that a course in computer programming should be required of all first-year engineering students. A growing number of engineering educators is now beginning to question this 35-year-old idea, however, suggesting instead that first-year students be taught to use commercial software packages to solve engineering problems, and that programming be taught either as an elective, or as a requirement for those students whose disciplinary interests require it (such as computer engineers).

This paper reports the results of a survey of the full-time faculty within the School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh on required student computing skills. The survey asked detailed questions in each of the following two general areas: -

Gottfried, B. S. (1996, June), Should Computer Programming Be Taught To All First Year Engineering Students? Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia.

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