Numerate degree subjects should include exposure to a variety of computational software
In common with many higher educational establishments, the University I work for has site licenses for a wide variety of scientific software applications such as Labview, MATLAB, Mathematica, NAG, Maple and Mathcad– a great boon to students and researcher who study and work there. The computational education of a typical STEM undergraduate will include exposure to at least some of these systems along with traditional programming languages such as Java, C or Fortran and maybe even a little Excel when times are particularly bad!
Some argue that such exposure to multiple computational systems is a good thing while others argue that it leads to confusion and a ‘jack of all trades and master of none situation.’ Those who take the latter viewpoint tend to want to standardize on one system or other depending on personal preferences and expertise.
MATLAB, Python, Fortran and Mathematica are a few systems I’ve seen put forward over the years with the idea being that students will learn the basics of one system in their first few weeks and then the entire subject curriculum will be interwoven with these computational skills. In this way, students can use their computational skills as an aid to deeper subject understanding without getting bogged down with the technical details of several different computational systems. As you might expect, software vendors are extremely keen on this idea and will happily parachute in a few experts to help universities with curriculum development for free since this will possibly lead to their system being adopted.
Maybe we’ll end up with electrical engineers who’ve only ever seen Labview, mathematicians who’ve only ever used Maple, mechanical engineers who’ve only ever used MATLAB and economists who can only use Excel. While the computational framework(s) used to teach these subjects are less important than the teaching of the subject itself, I firmly believe that part of a well-rounded, numerate education should include exposure to several computational systems and such software mono-cultures should be avoided at all costs.
Part of the reason for writing this post is to ask what you think so comments are very welcome.