The Computer Revolution

Why Math and Science as Well as Computing Teachers Need to Be Part of It

by Tom Rogers

In roughly the last 40 years computers have morphed from arcane computational tools into a major force altering not just math, science, and engineering but commerce, social systems, and even political activity, literally in a revolutionary manner as seen in the cell phone and social media fueled Arab Spring revolts of Dec. 2010.

One of the most revolutionary components, the cell-phone--a type of special-purpose computer--has has gone from zero to over 4.6 billion users in only about 30 years, making it the most widely owned piece of high tech equipment on the planet. With the smart-phone--a type of general-purpose computer--introduced in 2007, poised to take the cell phone's crown, imagine the possibilities.

Impact on mathematics 

The first computer based mathematical proof created virulent conflict among mathematicians when published in 1976 in the Illinois Journal of Mathematics by Appel and Haken. It just wasn't traditional pencil and paper mathematics. Using an IBM 360, a mainframe computer with 64K of memory (that's right, “K” of memory—a smart phone is now orders of magnitude more powerful) and 1,200 hours of computer time, they were able to prove the Four Color Theorem—four colors is the minimum needed to draw maps. The proof was too long to be checked by a person in a human lifetime.

Today, the use of computers for both applied and theoretical mathematics is commonplace. Much, if not most, mathematics are done with calculators (a type of computer), various spread sheets, or high level software packages such as Wolfram's Mathematica, itself containing a high level computer language.

Impact on science and engineering

There's a specialized branch of computer science devoted to almost every type of science including computational chemistry and computational physics. With the completion of the human genome project, bioinformatics, the computer science applied to analyzing biological information, has become red-hot. For biology, the computer is the 21st century equivalent of the microscope.

In engineering, CAD, various forms of spread sheets, and high level math software packages have become the standard tools of analysis and design. Computers of different types and sizes have become the primary means of controlling equipment from robotics to nuclear power plants.

Impact on K-12 education

K-12 education has already experienced a computer revolution: the use of computers for presenting content. The next computer revolution needs to address the content itself. Today, not just computer science, but also business, math, and science teachers need to incorporate at least some computer science in their subjects in order to give their students a 21st century perspective.

There's already some degree of integration between math, science, and computer science courses. In the state of South Carolina, AP Computer Science is considered a math course. IB Computer Science (taught at International Baccalaureate magnet schools) is considered by the IB organization to be a science course. 

To be part of the second revolution, not just traditional computing, but also math and science teachers need to be involved. They can take a step in the right direction by joining CSTA. And, it's free!