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Supporting Scala Adoption in Colleges by Mark Lewis

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With Scala Days New York just finished thoughts will be on how great the experience was for many and the amazing talks. Mark Lewis reflects on the talks focusing on teaching Scala and in this article he discusses how this teaching should go further and be featured in education. Would you have liked to learn Scala whilst in education?

 

'Scala Days North America just finished, and one of the big surprises for me was how many talks focused on teaching Scala. The first day had roughly one talk on teaching Scala in every time block.

The topic of increasing the use of Scala in colleges also came up in the final panel.
 
I think it is pretty clear that the companies using Scala feel a need to get more developers who either know the language or can transition into it quickly and easily. Large companies, like Twitter, can run their own training programs, but that is out of reach for most companies. What most companies need is for more colleges to at least introduce Scala and the idea of functional programming in their curricula.
 

The Current State of Affairs

The current reality of college CS education is that imperative OO is king. For roughly two decades, Java dominated the landscape of college CS courses, especially at the introductory level. In the last ~5 years, Python has made significant inroads, again, especially at the introductory level. Let's be honest, that is really a move in the wrong direction for those who want graduates that are prepared to work with Scala because not only is Python not generally taught in a functional way, the dynamic typing doesn't prepare students to think in the type-oriented manner that is ideal for Scala programming. (I have to note that this move to Python has been predicated on the idea that Python is a simpler language to learn, but an analysis of a large dataset of student exercise solutions for zyBooks indicates this might not actually be the case.)

It is also true that some aspects of functional programming, namely the use of higher-order functions, has moved into pretty much all major programming languages. However, it isn't at all clear that these concepts are currently appearing in college curricula. Part of the reason for this is that in nearly all cases, features added to languages late are more complex than those that were part of the original development. Yes, Java 8 has lambdas and you can use map and filter on Streams, but there is a lot of overhead, both syntactically and cognitively, that makes it much harder to teach to students in Java than it is in Scala. That overhead means professors are less likely to "get to it" during any particular course.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of students coming out of colleges today have never heard of Scala, nor have they ever been taught to think about problems in a functional way.

 

What Can You Do?

If you work for a company that uses Scala, it would probably benefit you greatly if this state of affairs could be changed so that you can hire kids straight out of college who are ready to move into your development environment. The question is, how do you do this? I have a few suggestions.

First, contact the CS departments at local colleges and/or your alma mater. Tell them the importance of Scala and functional programming to your organization and that you would love to hire graduates with certain skills. This has to be done in the right way though, so let's break it down a bit.

 

Who Should You Talk To?

My guess is that a lot of people will immediately wonder who they should be reaching out to, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter, as long as it is a faculty member in Computer Science. You can always start with the chair and ask them if there is someone else in the department that would be better to talk to, but no matter who you start with, you'll probably wind up being directed to the most applicable person.

 

What Types Of Schools?

I know that it will be tempting to focus on big schools with the idea that you can get more bang for the buck if you do something with the local state school that graduates 300+ CS majors a year. The problem here is that many of the stereotypes for big organizations not being agile apply to colleges as well. The bigger the school, the harder it likely is to create change. Smaller schools might not graduate as many students, but they are probably more adaptable and open to change. Departments with <10 faculty members might not crank out hundreds of majors, but they can probably produce a few very good ones each year that you would love to have on your team.
This doesn't mean you skip on the big schools. If you can convince your local state school, the payoffs are huge. I would just urge you to cast a wide net. Any school with a CS department is worth reaching out to.

 

How To Start The Conversation

It probably isn't the best idea to just go to a college and tell them that they are doing things wrong and that you have ideas on how they can do it better. One way to start a conversation would be to say that you are interested in talking about pedagogy and their curriculum to get a better idea of what they do and how they do it. However, an even better idea would be to initiate the conversation by offering to do something for them.
Most colleges will have some type of venue for outside entities to give talks to their majors. Ask if they have a seminar/colloquium that you might be able to speak at. I am the current organizer for the CS Colloquium at Trinity and I would love to have speakers from industry offer to come to give interesting talks to our majors (hint, hint). I'm quite certain that I'm not alone. This gives you a great venue to say all the things that I mention in the next section, both to faculty and students, efficiently.
If you have a local Scala Meetup, you might see if they would be willing to send out an invitation to their majors for that as well.
 

What Should You Say?

This is where things are a bit more tricky. Most colleges do not view themselves as vocational training. They don't just put things in their curricula because companies would like it, though they do feel some pressure to make sure their graduates have the skills needed to find employment. College curricula focus on fundamental concepts, not tools because we know that technology is ever-changing, and our students are going to have to continue learning throughout their careers. We have to build the foundation for that learning. So the key is to show them how the tools that you are using represent the paradigms of the future of the industry.

With this in mind, your goal isn't to convince them to teach Scala, at least not directly. There is a reason that your company uses Scala, and my guess is that you believe that the reasons your company chose Scala are generally indicative of the way that a lot of the industry needs to move. It might be that you see that data keeps growing in importance and size and that processing that data in a way that scales is critical for the future. You know that using a functional approach is key to writing these types of applications both today and in the future. You know that while the framework you are currently using probably won't be dominant in 10 years, the ideas behind how it works and how you use it to solve real problems will still be folded into the frameworks of the future.

I would say that your first goal is to establish that in the highly parallel and distributed environment we live in, the functional paradigm has moved from an academic play area into an essential real-world skill. You might also tell them why the pragmatic approach of Scala makes sense for bringing the functional paradigm into practical usage. Highlight how it impacts your use case and how you see that being a use case that will only grow with time.

Going back to the fact that colleges want to teach things that are foundational, I would point out how many other languages are following in the footsteps of Scala. This is key because it makes it clear that learning Scala isn't just learning one language. Instead, it is opening the door to where most older languages are evolving as well as where many new languages are going. Knowing Scala helps future-proof students in this regard, and Scala isn't just sitting still and getting older. It is a dynamic language with creators who are working to keep it on the cutting else of language development while maintaining an eye to the practical aspects of what makes a language usable in industry.

If you get to the point where they are convinced but aren't certain how to put Scala and functional programming into their curricula, point them to academics who have been using Scala for teaching. I would personally welcome all such inquiries. Just tell them to write to mlewis@trinity.edu. In the US both Konstantin Läufer and George K. Thiruvathukal at Loyola University Chicago have experience in teaching with Scala and have an interest in spreading the word. So does Brian Howard at DePauw University. While Martin has the most experience of anyone teaching Scala, personally, I'd rather he focus his time on Scala 3 development. Also, while Heather might be a freshly minted academic at CMU, she is definitely a Scala expert and her experience with the MOOCs means that she has taught more people Scala than almost anyone in the world.

 

Going Further

Giving a talk every so often is a nice way to let schools know what types of technologies you use and why you see them being important in the future. As such, it can provide a subtle way to influence the curriculum. However, if you are willing and able to put in a bit more time, you can have a more explicit impact on what is being taught by offering to teach a course as an adjunct professor the way Austin is doing at UT Dallas and the way Twitter does at CU Boulder.

The challenge with this approach is that not everyone is a naturally gifted teacher and it will be a fairly significant time sink. Technically, whoever does it will get paid, just not that much. (Teaching one class as an adjunct pays well under $10,000 dollars and is often as low as $3000.) The real question is whether your employer is willing and able to let you do this. I will note that for various reasons, a developer doing this who doesn't have a Master's degree will need to be reasonably senior to make it work at a lot of Universities.

The upside of teaching a course is that you can probably get into an upper division course where you have fairly complete control over the curriculum and you can teach exactly the topics that you would most like new hires to arrive with. Due to growing enrollments, the vast majority of colleges are likely quite open to having an adjunct help out, and many will be open to an interesting upper division offering as they can probably move faculty around to cover other courses. (At Trinity, we are looking for an adjunct for next fall and while they are currently scheduled for an introductory course, if someone wanted to come in and teach my Big Data course using Scala, I could certainly switch to the introductory course to make things work.) Of course, if you want to teach CS1/CS2 with Scala, I've got a bunch of materials you can use to help organize the class.

You might also see if the department has an advisory board. Having a seat on such a board will give your company insight into the inner workings of the department and how they think about the field while also giving you a venue to talk about what you value and where you see the future of the field going.

 

In The Meantime

Until other colleges catch on to the value of Scala, remember that at Trinity University we are teaching all of our students both Scala and how to think functionally, so let me know when you are looking for interns or junior devs.'

 

This article was written by Mark Lewis and posted originally on dynamicsofprogramming.blogspot.com