Computer programing for geosciences: Teach your students how to make tools



When I announced my intention to pursue a Ph.D. in geophysics, some people gave me confused looks, because I was working on a master's degree in computer science at the time. My friends, like many incoming geoscience graduate students, have trouble linking these two fields. From my perspective, it is pretty straightforward: Much of geoscience evolves around novel analyses of large data sets that require custom tools—computer programs—to minimize the drudgery of manual data handling; other disciplines share this characteristic. While most faculty adapted to the need for tool development quite naturally, as they grew up around computer terminal interfaces, incoming graduate students lack intuitive understanding of programing concepts such as generalization and automation. I believe the major cause is the intuitive graphical user interfaces of modern operating systems and applications, which isolate the user from all technical details. Generally, current curricula do not recognize this gap between user and machine. For students to operate effectively, they require specialized courses teaching them the skills they need to make tools that operate on particular data sets and solve their specific problems. Courses in computer science departments are aimed at a different audience and are of limited help.


I thank Jeff Freymueller for supporting me in the pursuit of this experiment and providing valuable feedback on the manuscript. Jamie Martin and Bernie Coakley also provided many helpful comments on early drafts of the article, for which I am grateful. The Department of Geology and Geophysics at University of Alaska Fairbanks provided financial support to realize the course. I also acknowledge the supportive and constructive comments by editor Christina Cohen and two anonymous reviewers, which improved the manuscript.