Writing in CS

5 Handouts -- Abstract -- Introduction -- Rationale -- Project -- Summary

CS1 -- Fall 2005 papers: Ethical Issues in Computing

CS1 -- Fall 2001 titles: Ethical Issues in Computing

In a semester-long research project spaced over five steps, students focus on, write about, and publish a web page about an ethical issue in contempory computing. Combining library research skills, graphic-arts applications, and hypertext publishing on the web, student web pages introduce their readers to an ethical issue in computing, summarize it's importance, present quotes, and express their own opinions about its significance. In particular, each student is charged with teaching the college community at large about a "hot issue", where the student-selected topic focuses on technical, social, and/or professional issues embedded in the discipline of computing. By capitalizing on student's personal interest in a topic and their eagerness to publish on the web, the multi-step project exposes students to a level of scholarly research that will be increasingly expected of them while studying at Wheaton College.

Mark D. LeBlanc
Professor of Computer Science      

An earlier version of this work is published in
The Journal of Computing in Small Colleges, v11(4), March, 1996, p109-116.


The transformation from "number crunching machines" to rich and diverse information services has confirmed that the discipline of computing is truly "more than just programming". Yet what is not so clear is how well the introduction of mini-topics (e.g., Adams, Leestma & Nyhoff, 1995; Impagliazzo & Nagin, 1995) or central subject areas representing the various subdisciplines (e.g., Tucker, Bernat, Bradley, Cupper & Scragg, 1995; Schneider & Gersting, 1995) convinces computer science students of the social pervasiveness of the discipline. If the goal is to motivate our students to explore the discipline "beyond the current compiler used in their introductory computing labs", then incorporating breadth into the curriculum appears to be a necessary but not sufficient condition towards reaching that goal.

Abstract Introduction Rationale Project Summary


The rationale for including this depth component in the introductory course for majors and minors in computer science (hereafter called CS1) is based primarily upon an insight gained from my last three years of introducing breadth into the CS1 curriculum: student evaluations do not speak highly of mini-excursions into subareas of computing. In fact, while my intent was to motivate them to appreciate the richness of the discipline, students would comment on the "wasted time spent on irrelevant topics". Despite my many hours devoted to develop programming assignments with broad themes (e.g., NVGP-Not Very Good Privacy for introducing encryption), student written evaluations and conversations about what was learned centered almost exclusively on syntax and the compiler (regardless of whether the language was Pascal, C, or C++). Their evaluations echoed the areas in which they had gained a certain level of expertise; frankly, the only area where I focused their attention long enough so they could obtain some degree of confidence was writing, compiling, and debugging programs.

The present semester-long in-depth project attempts to heighten student's appreciation of the discipline by focusing their attention on one "hot" ethical issue in computing. Note that this project augments rather than replaces my continued use of examples and readings which expose students to the central areas of computing. Is it more work? Yes and yes; both for me and my students. Is it worth it? I think so and will continue to show by example below.

First, by the time my students are eligible to take independent study courses or apply for research assistantships or internships, I want them to be capable of scholarly research in our discipline. This demands exposure to discipline-specific periodicals and requires practice with technical writing. Although all students are required to take one course in introductory writing, the new Wheaton Curriculum encourages individual programs to infuse writing and writing instruction throughout the courses that are required in order to complete a major area of study. In the spirit of providing such opportunities, this project provides immediate practice with technical writing of a topic related to their major area. In addition, quality research requires a certain level of mastery with state of the art library tools. Careful organization of the project steps integrates the requirements for a successful literature search with technical writing while maintaining a focus on computing.

Second, throughout the project, students become exposed to a number of other software applications in addition to their present programming environment (compiler, debugger, etc): web browsers (especially those of different flavors) emphasize client-server environments and Adobe PhotoShop, digital photography, and Dream Weaver highlight hypertext writing styles and tools.

In short, this project moves students beyond the walls of their weekly laboratories. Throughout the semester, students wrestle with and write about an ethical issue in computing and get a taste of the larger software development picture by experiencing the tools and skills that are needed in order to develop highly interactive, graphically appealing applications.

The Project

Ethical Issues in Computing and
Student Publishing on the World-Wide-Web

The project is divided into five mini-projects, each due approximately every two-weeks, thus the project runs throughout the semester in parallel to all other assignments and laboratory work. Copies of the specifications are available below:

  1. Part I: So Teach Me Something
  2. Part II: The Web minus Content is Just a Hollywood Prop
  3. Part III: Red Roads, Blue Roads
  4. Part IV: Case Studies
  5. Part V: My Page, Our Pages


In a five-part project running the entire semester, students researched an ethical issue, conducted an extensive literature search, and summarized their research in hypertext documents for the web. Combining writing and library skills, exposure to applications other than programming environments, and student's eagerness to publish on the web, the project motivated students to appreciate the breadth of the discipline of computing by giving them time to explore a "hot" issue in-depth.

From the outset, the intent of this in-depth project is to focus student's minds on one topic long enough to initiate a scholarly level of expertise in an area of computing. Yes, I surely want them to understand that "computer science is more than just programming", but there other important side effects of the project that should be emphasized.

Demanding a "scholarly level of expertise"
This was and continues to be the driving side effect of the project (and the one that I keep whispering to myself as I take on the additional workload of grading and managing the project). As I peered at my first year student's schedule of courses, it soon became apparent that at least five of the eight courses required a significant amount of written expression, yet none of the courses had a technical side (that is, they were all Humanities and Social Science courses). By coordinating this project such as described above, each of the student's who pass throughout CS1 have experienced the major steps of serious research. Can I expect "scholarly output"? Realistically, of course not (although a few have surprised me!). But can I expect it in CS2? At least more so. The bottomline: the project presented here helps ensure that I can expect scholarly research and writing by the time these students take upper-level and independent study courses.

The Accountability Factor:
Student excitement about publishing on the web is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they can tell their friends that "they are publishing their writing". On the other hand, their friends can read what they wrote! This is exactly counter to how writing typically occurs. Generally, students write and the instructor grades, followed by a number of write and rewrite cycles. In this project, since students at least know that their work will be displayed to the entire campus (if not the browsing world), a certain hint of pride is injected into their work, although to some students, fear and/or embarrassment may play a larger role than pride! In the context of demanding a scholarly level of expertise described above, I say: "Whatever works!"

Retention and Recruitment
This project also serves as part of the department's retention strategy for keeping and recruiting the best students for computer science. From the beginning, it was clear that this project generated more out of class conversations and dinner meetings with students than any other topic in CS1.

Instructor Assessment:
As one would suspect, some of the pages at this point are excellent efforts for a first try and others are lacking the content that was so often stressed. However, the assessment of the project does not focus entirely on their particular web page. Rather, assessment will focus as much on student's written and oral reactions as to how their participation in this project expanded their view of the discipline of computing. Student evaluations of the course will include a section that particularly addresses this question.


  1. Adams, J., Leestma, S. and Nyhoff, L. (1995) C++ -- An Introduction to Computing. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

  2. Impagliazzo, J. and Nagin, P. (1995). Computer Science -- A Breadth-First Approach with C. John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

  3. Schneider, G.M. and Gersting, J.L. (1995). An Invitation to Computer Science. West Publishing, St. Paul, MN.

  4. Tucker, A.B. (Ed.), Barnes, B., Aiken, R., Barker, K., Bruce, K., Cain, J., Conry, S., Engel, G., Epstein, R., Lidtke, D., Mulder, M., Rogers, J., Spafford, E., and Turner, A (1991). Computing Curricula 1991, ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Curriculum Task Force, ACM Press and IEEE-CS Press, New York, NY. Portions reprinted in Communications of the ACM (March 1991) and IEEE Computer (November, 1991).

  5. Tucker, A.B., Bernat, A., Bradley, W.J., Cupper, R.D. and Scragg, G.W. (1995). Fundamentals of Computing I -- Logic, Problem Solving, Programs, and Computers. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.

    Maintained by: Mark LeBlanc
    Dept of Math & Computer Science
    Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts