Why building things is good for you

Sitting in lectures must be boring. It was boring when I was a student, and likely it hasn’t changed much in the intervening 30 years. Yes, we have tried to make lectures more interesting, increased active learning, tried to make learning a more engaging experience, but let’s face it, there is a limit to how innovative they can be. The best solution is to turn the lecture into more of a discussion seminar, and that is sometimes only possible in upper years (and even then in a class of 60-70 that’s a stretch).

So should we spend more time building things, and less time looking at books? Likely. There may be a distinct connection between innovative thought and building things. We have likely concentrated too much on the just using our brains at the expense of manual tasks. High schools use to have mandatory manual training or “shop” classes. In some places they are now under the guise of “Technological Education” classes. That’s a bit of a crock considering how little technology is involved in woodworking. In 8th grade I took a woodworking and metalworking course, and four years of technical drafting hereafter. It provided a basic set of skills to use tools, something which is clearly lacking today. How many people wanting to become a mechanical engineer have ever built anything? Yeah, sure mechanical engineers aren’t going to spend their lives machining parts, but they should have an inkling of how things are built, and be able to build things. You don’t need advanced mathematics or physics to machine something… and you don’t even need to machine using metal – you can machine wood on a lathe too. What about some drafting? Yeah CAD is great, but you have to be able to sketch things in the field – it’s a LOT faster that drawing something on an iPad.

How does this relate to computer science? Well, computer scientists build things too. Some of it is software sure, but a growing portion of these systems involve some form of hardware, or external, physical device that involves some sort of iterative process to design and develop. We would have better products if people understood more about how humans use “things” (i.e. tools, appliances), ergonomics etc. Building things also leads to better problem solving skills.


One thought on “Why building things is good for you

  1. Joel Cummings says:

    Sitting in lectures is boring. In a lot of ways I wonder why classes aren’t run as demos (showing the requirements and functionality of a product) and then leave it to office hours essentially. Those who want to discuss requirements and go over solutions can do so, others can leave. That would likely help with large class size, even if only half of the 70-100 people leave the discussions and those who need help can get involved. Hell one could even record these classes like Stanford or others and post them for those who can’t or won’t attend.

    I feel this will work even for the most basic classes. There are far more online resources than a professor can present in lecture, quick short demos can present the basics. Most of the work occurs outside of class in computer science, why not acknowledge that and limit classes to once or twice a week and run them as optional discussions or labs. Eventually to learn you have to have that “struggle” to an extent to solve it yourself.

    In taking woodworking and shop classes in high school the only real reason you went to class is because the equipment was there, instruction was very limited, the teacher always gave a short presentation of what you were making and show the steps after that it was on your own. In fact, we could go weeks without any demos or discussion at all, you just worked. If in computer science you don’t need to come in for equipment why have so much instruction.

    Finally there’s too many toy problems solved, you write code for some project, throw it away and start over for the next. This is why students write such terrible code, if they had to maintain it they would quickly learn how write clean maintainable code to avoid getting bitten again. This needs to start in the first year, in the first class for the first assignment.

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