How to think like a computer scientist: learn how to code with Python

Learning with Python 3 (RLE)

Version date: October 2012

by Peter Wentworth, Jeffrey Elkner, Allen B. Downey, and Chris Meyers

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Foreword By David Basley

As an educator, researcher, and book author, I am delighted to see the completion of this book. Python is a fun and extremely easy-to-use programming language that has steadily gained in popularity over the last few years. Developed over ten years ago by Guido van Rossum, Python’s simple syntax and overall feel is largely derived from ABC, a teaching language that was developed in the 1980’s. However, Python was also created to solve real problems and it borrows a wide variety of features from programming languages such as C++, Java, Modula-3, and Scheme. Because of this, one of Python’s most remarkable features is its broad appeal to professional software developers, scientists, researchers, artists, and educators.

Despite Python’s appeal to many different communities, you may still wonder why Python? or why teach programming with Python? Answering these questions is no simple task—especially when popular opinion is on the side of more masochistic alternatives such as C++ and Java. However, I think the most direct answer is that programming in Python is simply a lot of fun and more productive.

When I teach computer science courses, I want to cover important concepts in addition to making the material interesting and engaging to students. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for introductory programming courses to focus far too much attention on mathematical abstraction and for students to become frustrated with annoying problems related to low-level details of syntax, compilation, and the enforcement of seemingly arcane rules. Although such abstraction and formalism is important to professional software engineers and students who plan to continue their study of computer science, taking such an approach in an introductory course mostly succeeds in making computer science boring. When I teach a course, I don’t want to have a room of uninspired students. I would much rather see them trying to solve interesting problems by exploring different ideas, taking unconventional approaches, breaking the rules, and learning from their mistakes. In doing so, I don’t want to waste half of the semester trying to sort out obscure syntax problems, unintelligible compiler error messages, or the several hundred ways that a program might generate a general protection fault.

One of the reasons why I like Python is that it provides a really nice balance between the practical and the conceptual. Since Python is interpreted, beginners can pick up the language and start doing neat things almost immediately without getting lost in the problems of compilation and linking. Furthermore, Python comes with a large library of modules that can be used to do all sorts of tasks ranging from web-programming to graphics. Having such a practical focus is a great way to engage students and it allows them to complete significant projects. However, Python can also serve as an excellent foundation for introducing important computer science concepts. Since Python fully supports procedures and classes, students can be gradually introduced to topics such as procedural abstraction, data structures, and object-oriented programming — all of which are applicable to later courses on Java or C++. Python even borrows a number of features from functional programming languages and can be used to introduce concepts that would be covered in more detail in courses on Scheme and Lisp.

In reading Jeffrey’s preface, I am struck by his comments that Python allowed him to see a higher level of success and a lower level of frustration and that he was able to move faster with better results. Although these comments refer to his introductory course, I sometimes use Python for these exact same reasons in advanced graduate level computer science courses at the University of Chicago. In these courses, I am constantly faced with the daunting task of covering a lot of difficult course material in a blistering nine week quarter. Although it is certainly possible for me to inflict a lot of pain and suffering by using a language like C++, I have often found this approach to be counterproductive—especially when the course is about a topic unrelated to just programming. I find that using Python allows me to better focus on the actual topic at hand while allowing students to complete substantial class projects.

Although Python is still a young and evolving language, I believe that it has a bright future in education. This book is an important step in that direction. David Beazley University of Chicago Author of the Python Essential Reference


Read the open book here


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