Teaching Computer Science: Why Was I Not Consulted?

Numbers

I’m volunteering in a high school computer science class a couple mornings a week . . .

If you’re going to work with computers, you need to be able to move around between different number systems, most commonly base 10, base 2 and base 16.

As a warm-up, I asked students how many ways they could represent the quantity 7. Answers included the word “seven,” roman numerals, seven dots, a septagon, a Chinese symbol, and so on.

“Quantities exist naturally,” I said, “but number systems are man-made. They’re just a set of symbols along with an agreement about how to order them. Why do we use the number system that we do? Who decided that?”

Because I phrased it in a provocative way, some students realized that they hadn’t been consulted.

“Yeah, no one asked me,” one student said.

“Raise your hand in math class,” I suggested, “and ask ‘Why do we use these symbols to represent quantities? Who decided that?'” Maybe it was Donald Trump. “You could do the same thing with the alphabet in your English class.”

Resistance! To the barricades!

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