msr faculty summit: using social relevance to enhance CS


John Nordinger talks about the fact that they've used gaming to reinvigorate CS curricula, but are concerned that some are being left behind with that. So they're starting to think about socially relevant curricula to broaden the appeal further. Many schools are still seing a precipitous decline in enrollments, and this is one possible solution.

Shows a graph of enrollment that's quite grim. It's not just the already known problem of few women, but men are declining as well. Becoming an issue of national competitiveness, as well. Asian PhDs are growing rapidly, ours are declining. Our internet use is still top, but growing at 2%/year, while China (currently #2) is growing at 20%/year.

What do they mean by "socially relevant"? What's socially relevant to girls that are sophomore, juniors, seniors in high school. (I'd argue relevant to middle school, which is closer to where we lose them.) It can be "top down," like global warming, AIDS, etc. Students are influenced by media--both online and broadcast/print. But also bottom-up relevance...what is relevant to them now, and how can we make computers/programming more compelling to them? (Programming their own Facebook apps, for example. Tools for personal finance, shopping, etc.)

How can we make CS more compelling to people not currently drawn to the field? How can we engage a new crop of students and make them feel good not only about what they make/contribute, but also about computing generally.

John hands off to Devika Subramian (Rice).

She says "Where have all the freshmen gone?" has become our new theme song in CS.

Where are the "defectors" going? To other branches of science and engineering. Why? They see CS curriculum as very narrow. CS = programming. Computing for its own sake is unappealing. They foresee a "Dilbertian" future as 'programmer cogs'. They see BioE and EE as offering more opportunity to have an impact on RL problems. CS is seen as the plumbing, rather than the idea side of the process. It's perceived as a support or overhead function, as opposed to a mainline/value-generating function.

The price of our sucess is that ubiquity of computers make them fundamentallyless interesting as an object of study. This generation of students is very entrepreneurial. But our current CS curricula doesn't prepare them for recognizing and leveraging business related opportunities related to computing. (So why doesn't MSR bring MIS and IT faculty to these events? We're the ones who do know this...)

We have, for the most part, let outsiders define who we are. We need to let people know that we are more than just programmers. So, what message can we send?

  • A place where a small group of people can still make revolutionary advances in all areas of society (Microsoft, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, eBay, etc)
  • The primary technological enabler for solving real-world problems; creating needs and meeting them. [hmmm. creating needs??]

What is socially relevant computing? It is computing for a cause, for a purpose. For example: "can we evacuate Houston in 72 hours?"; "can we predict the efficacy of a cancer drug for patiens by using their genomic and proteomic profiles?" It is computing that meets a need in some context---how can computation help me organize my music, my thoughts? It embeds the study of ocmputer science in the context of society.

Provides some examples of existing curricula that do this, but says we can do much more. Describes how Rice is offering a new CS1/CS2 course this fall in conjunction with Civil & Env Eng and Poli Sci, with support from the City of Houston, to buld computational tools for planning the city's response to major hurricanes.

Shows a really nicely done video that advertises a bioengineering course at Rice called "Bioengineering and World Health." Why don't we have this kind of compelling course and marketing material in all of our CS curricula? What would that look like? Mentions the "Threads" curriculum at Georgia Tech, and the Chicago Math Spiral Approach. (I'll add links later.)

Now on to Mike Buckley from Univ of Buffalo. They're overhauling their CS1 and CS2 and capstone classes, as well as their labs. Why do students overwhelmingly go into social science in greater numbers than CS?

He looked at four textbooks, and shows the inane examples that they use. Counting donuts. Counting puppies. Constructing ducks. It's embarassing. Newspapers, however, are a better source of examples. What's the #1 cause of firefighter deaths, for example? Heart attacks. So he used that example as a focal point for the CS1 curriculum that year (would like more information on this; he's very vague, constrained on time--but he's close enough to set up a visit when I get back to rochester).

How can we attract non-traditional CS students--including students at academic risk, and those with behavioral problems?

They build a research lab where students could investigate problems outside of their coursework. They use non-traditional ancillary materials, and draw on expertise outside of the classroom.

For the first month, they teach dsign and modeling. How programmers view the world. Problem spaces vs solution spaces. "The Dream Curve". Their labs and example problems have a societal emphasis. They talk about "The Tao of Engineering": ritualists, pessimists, travelers.

Makes his freshmen read The Tao of Pooh, the Design of Everyday Things, Buddhism Plain and Simple, Neutral (about a 14yo with CP). [ cool!] No puppies and ducks, but modeling distribution of pollution in the great lakes. random numbers, they use the Princeton Egg simulation for predicting the future.

They study the Therac-5, the Hubble deformity, the Denver Airport baggage system, and other engineering errors.

His capstone students work with the severely disabled, building systems that help real people. Shows wonderful, inspirational examples. (All static photos, though. He totally needs videos about this!!)


I might quibble with one point; I think we lose them before middle school.

I might quibble with one point; I think we lose them before middle school.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on July 16, 2007 4:05 PM.

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