Students find excitement in machine learning and programming

Tasha Hall, Campus Life Reporter

As the spring 2023 semester quickly approaches, students have been encountering the collection of new courses in the course catalogue. There is a noticeable trend in course offerings at Whitman and many colleges nationwide that have a focus on career-readiness and preparation for the modern world: machine learning.

Visiting Professor of Computer Science Parteek Kumar is a seasoned instructor and an expert on machine learning and programming. This spring, Kumar will be teaching a course entitled “ST: Machine Learning.”

“[Machine learning] is the study of algorithms that computers use to perform a specific task without explicit instructions. Simply put, machine learning is to train a computer with many examples so it can predict new samples,” Kumar said.

Machine learning has become a success with great applications. As a dominant problem-solving technique in the modern world, it is used in many settings: from your favorite search engines to bioinformatics.

Junior Camryn Pettenger-Willey, a computer science minor, has had some experience with both programming and machine learning, as she had an internship featuring the two skills. She agrees that learning both can be useful.

“I think that programming and having experience with computers is becoming more and more prevalent and useful in this day and age because there are so many new problems being solved that use the help of computers,” Pettenger-Willey said. “Learning programming and having experience with computers makes you more likely to be hired. There are many interdisciplinary fields that are gaining a lot of momentum right now, such as data science, computational biochemistry and bioinformatics.”

Learning how to code can also be cognitively beneficial. Like developing a new skill, coding can allow you to solve complex problems. Pettenger-Willey likens coding problems to puzzles, where you have to exercise creativity and computational thinking skills to figure out the best way to put it all together.

Kumar discusses the way programming builds problem-solving skills in young students.

“Programming triggers thinking ability and it brings the creative element out of every child. It develops resilience, as failing and then succeeding is the best way to learn,” Kumar said. “It helps to think in an algorithmic way to solve the problems and this ability helps the child to better understand the problem and its possible solutions.”

Both programming and machine learning are about efficiency and making tools work for you. As they say, the best programmer is the laziest one, finding the shortest pathway to success. Senior Cana Baez has a computer science minor, and she has a great appreciation for computer programming after being introduced to it in high school.

“Learning how to program has trained my brain to think about things I didn’t previously consider. Programs should be efficient, and a user’s experience with their devices should be too. As such, I’ve tried my best to make my computer work for me with minimal effort,” Baez said. “I’ve memorized a bunch of keyboard shortcuts. I know how to move and manipulate files through Terminal. It’s also worth noting I work for WCTS, so I provide tech support on the regular.”

It has become a popular sentiment that learning to code is like learning a foreign language. Although enjoying the lessons in programming and acquiring skills in patience, problem-solving and community collaboration, Baez does not completely concur that programming languages (Python, R, C+, etc.) should be considered a foreign language for those who need the distribution credit.

“I remember reading a study from MIT once that said reading lines of computer code activates different regions of the brain compared to reading written language,” Baez said. “Also, spoken languages are a lot more complex, flexible and nuanced than programming languages, which follow more fixed rules. If you don’t write a program correctly, it simply won’t run as desired.”

Assistant Professor of Statistics Marina Ptukhina will be teaching “Statistics with Applications” this spring. While she thinks programming is a great skill to possess, she wouldn’t easily classify coding languages as foreign either.

“At the same time, it could be a special subcategory within foreign languages,” Ptukhina said.

The fun of programming and machine learning is most evident when all the work finally allows you to achieve your goal. Baez finds joy in coding, not only from learning the dry skills, but also how it combines math and creativity.

“I’ve coded a bunch of projects ranging from simple to complex over the years: a Mad Libs generator, an iSpy game, a grade calculator, an animated online Christmas card, an F1 racing simulator, multiple predictive graphs using real-world data, etc.,” Baez said. “Regardless of what you program, there’s something especially gratifying about completing a lot of logic and number work behind the scenes, clicking a button, then watching clean, colorful output come to life onscreen.”

Coding is a valuable skill that will apply to countless future careers, and machine learning is integral to many aspects of modern life. Whitman’s many offerings in computer programming will set any student up for success in the tech sector and throughout their life.