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Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences (2011)

This page represents the 2011 version of the course. To see the course material from the summer 2010 version, please go here.

To get more details about the teaching assignment in general, including a link to a paper summarizing the 2010 course, go here.


This course has been offered for many years and counts as a science elective for students in arts and social sciences programs.  The course has traditionally covered some computer basics like binary numbers and data representation, but focuses on proficient use of common software packages like Microsoft Word.

I requested to teach this course summer 2010 so I could redesign it. I wanted to include more computer science topics so students would be aware of what we do in case they needed to partner with us one day, and so they could practice computational thinking.  I continued to develop the course when I taught it in summer 2011, and am in the process of trying to get it permanently changed so it is taught this way during the fall and winter terms as well.

Course Outline

The course outline is available online from Carleton's School of Computer Science.

Learning Objectives

  1. Gain an appreciation of what computer science is and how it relates to the arts and social sciences.
  2. Practice computational thinking.
  3. Learn about the software and tools that will help you succeed in an undergraduate program.


  • Introduction to computer science and computational thinking
  • Introduction to Microsoft Word
  • Introduction to programming with Scratch
  • Binary numbers and data representation
  • Searching and sorting algorithms
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Introduction to Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint
  • Internet and open source software

Course Notes

Note that my slides tend to be minimal, supplemented with lots of classroom activity and discussion and many resources listed on the course's WebCT page.  Pay particular attention to the notes section of the slides for more info.


Guest Speakers

What I Would Change Next Time

  • I would likely drop the Internet / Open Source section, at least as its own topic.  There isn't enough time for it and it doesn't add enough value.  It is still worth giving some links to open source software at some point, however.
  • I want to update how MS Office is covered.  The notes are presented as tutorials given by students enticed by an opportunity for a bonus mark.  This worked well last year but not so great this year.  I also ran out of time to talk about formulas for Excel, which I wanted to tie into the programming and algorithms topics.  Thus, I think it would be better to have students learn this software as an independent study of some sort (or in labs if the course has a tutorial component).  There is little value to droning on about the details during lectures.
  • In general, I need to continue to find ways to emphasize why we are learning certain things.  There are still a number of students who, in my feedback survey, wish we would not do Scratch because "they'll never use it again," though this is not the point of doing it.


Please see the Feedback page for general commentary made by students anonymously about this course.



Support for Updating the Course Content

As mentioned above, this course has traditionally been about learning how to use software rather than learning about computing.  This is largely historical: there was certainly a time when students did not have much experience with computers, so it made sense to give them the basics.

This is no longer the case.  We need to provide students with something more than just step-by-step instructions on how to navigate features of specific software.  We need to provide them with the ability to understand what's going on in a more abstract way so they can apply their understanding to any situation.  In other words, we need to give them an introduction to computational thinking and computer science.

In an informal survey given to students, I gained insight into how successful my version of this course has been.  Here are the results for two questions that I find particularly telling (noting that about a third of all students completed the survey):

Are you more likely to consider taking other programming classes (including outside of school, like the Girl Develop It program) or switching to computer science after taking this class?

  • No, I am not likely to take any other programming or computer science classes: 10
  • Yes, I am now more likely to take other programming or computer science classes: 10
  • I want to. But there is no free elective for the first year: 1
  • Maybe/unsure: 1

By the end of the course, I feel my confidence in using computers has increased.

  • Strongly agree: 7
  • Agree: 9
  • Neutral / don't know: 5
  • Disagree: 1
  • Strongly disagree: 0

Student Testimonials

Here are some comments from students that show the usefulness of the non-software topics we covered (naturally, some students would have preferred to get the MS Office version of the course instead, but I'm not including them here):

  • "I liked that this class gave a 'human' approach to computers and that we covered multiple topics."
  • "I never though I would gain any computer skills and I now have a new passion for it. ... I'm looking forward to taking more computer classes or workshops. Not only has this class helped me with computer skills but it has inspired me in many other aspects."
  • "HCI was beyond what I thought computer sciences was. It gave such a meaningful and human approach to computer I never thought I would see"
  • "I liked how we learned a bit of everything ie. programming, word etc."
  • "I really liked programming, algorithms and binary."
  • "Honestly, I would like to see more programming because I felt I learned the most about computers from that part of the course."
  • "It gets my the access to build up me own mental model of computer works."
  • "I really found the course to be quite interesting. ... I enjoyed playing around in scratch."
  • "i think the binary search is a good topic."
  • "Although I was expecting to be learning a lot about office, I did like learning programming, binary, and algorithms."
  • "I felt like all of the topics you covered were important to get a good overview of computer science today. It was well-rounded and accessible (for example, using a programming tool that a child can use)."

Teaching Assistant Testimonials

I asked my teaching assistants from the summer as well as a past teaching assistant (who only worked with the old course material) to write a few sentences on why they thought the course should be updated to include the topics I covered.  Here are a few excerpts:

  • "I thought the assignment structure and learning objectives were better designed in the summer course to better serve the arts students in their degrees. I felt that it successfully taught the students to think about how to be more productive using computational techniques as well as how to use software that will be useful to them in their degrees/workplace."
  • "The challenge that was presented to the students in the summer term made them think in a different way which I feel is the best form of experience a student can gain from higher education."
  • "The direction taken with COMP1001 by [Gail] is relatively unorthodox next to the older course outlines used. Personally, I found it to be a very effective new method of teaching introductory computer science."
  • "It was impressive to see students begin the semester having trouble with Microsoft Word, and end it with an understanding of search/sort algorithms, binary math, and control structures.  I understand that many of the students will not use these concepts in their future studies; However, focusing on these ideas lives up to the course's namesake in my opinion. At the very least it gives them a greater understanding of the underlying mechanics behind the software that they will undoubtedly use in their education and career."
  • "After speaking at the class, one of the students reached out to me to talk more about the possibility of combining her degree in Commerce with a minor in Computer Science. She was so proud to be able to write her own program in Scratch for her last assignment, and felt inspired to take COMP1005 in the Fall semester."
  • "I'm delighted to see that Gail has revised and updated the course material this semester.  The new topics and assignments give a more accurate introduction to computers and entices students to continue learning more about programming and Computer Science topics."