Coding creativity: Why programming isn’t just for engineers anymore.

A professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, Belinda Wang teaches novice coders how to craft novel solutions to problems in almost any field.

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Every single first-year Engineering student at the University of Toronto learns to code, regardless of whether they’re in computer, civil or chemical. They may never plan to use it after first year, but chances are they will—in school, in their careers, or when launching their first spin-off company.

That’s why The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at U of T is partnering with the HTML500 when it makes its Toronto debut February 22, 2015—we believe that everyone can learn to code, either in the classroom or from their living room, and with free crash courses like the HTML500, everyone should! Professor Belinda Wang teaches the first-year programming course at the U of T Engineering. We sat down with her to get the straight goods on why code, how it’s more art than science, and what we’ll all be programming 10 years from now.

How did you first learn to code?

When I first came into the University, we were in the era where the computer was a giant mainframe sitting somewhere at the University of Toronto, and we were at the level of punching cards. It was very primitive then. So coding was punching holes and putting them in the right order. Back then it wasn’t even possible to afford a so-called ‘personal computer’—the whole institution had one! Then we moved very quickly into personal computers, and now it’s everybody’s business to program. Before it was only the elite.

 photo 7bcedbbb-c9de-481d-ae29-fc80bc706dc9_zps3lyxnivs.jpg
Belinda Wang
Credits: University of Toronto

I’m not an engineer—why should I learn to code?

We are living in the age of the computer—for anyone who wants to walk around feeling comfortable living in this environment of modern technology, we have to have some basic understanding of how to use our devices. We have to look not just at the application side, but the under-the-surface design aspect. Lots of students arrive in my class with no coding or programming experience, completely blank. It’s time-consuming to learn to code, but I tell them every minute you spend with it, it will benefit you. Because this thing is not going away! You can avoid it, you may not be doing this for a living, as a professional programmer, but this knowledge and this training of how to explore on your own, makes you resourceful—that’s a skill you will need in any field.

Is there any room for creativity in coding?

Programming is an open-ended thing. And there is often no fixed answer—it’s not just 1+1=2, rather, I can achieve the goal by going this way, but you might do it another way. So it’s not just a single thing to say ‘I’m teaching programming.’ You want to lead the way for students to discover, explore by themselves, and to see their own style going into it. There’s a lot of creativity involved, and it’s a very individual thing—each person writes it differently than the next person, and can all be correct in terms of syntax, but maybe some solutions are more effective, maybe some are more efficient, some are more elegant.

 photo ECE_gesture-program-robotics_crop_zps0s63vcy9.jpgECE students code their own gesture-control programs to race drones in a recent aerial robotics competition.
Credits: Roberta Baker, University of Toronto

A culture of entrepreneurship is exploding across Canada, and particularly in Toronto. Do you see a dovetail between learning to code and starting your own business?

Absolutely—if you run any business, and especially if you’re running a start-up, you can’t afford to have all these professional resources lining up for you. You have to do things yourself, solve your own problems as much as possible. You’ve got to get yourself into this IT world—you can’t run any business without IT these days. And now an online presence is a must, so the more of that advertising and marketing you can do yourself, the better.

Ten years ago, no one was walking around with computers in their pockets—the way we interact with digital devices has changed dramatically. What platforms are next for coders?

We absolutely haven’t seen the end of what computers are capable of—we’re merely at the beginning stages. People are now trying to make computers to work like the human brain, to do everything we can do. Depending on your lifetime, when you were born, you will grow up into a different society, different environment, and you will need to have different skills to thrive in this environment. We’re certainly moving into the era where we’re looking for computer intelligence—what human beings are capable of will eventually be unlimited. And now we’re just trying to create more things to come help us!

written by: The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, University of Toronto