Cleaving Computer Science: A Time for New Degrees

February 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm 13 comments

The former Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, Rich DeMillo, established three schools within the College.  I’m not really sure how he came to decide these three groupings. I am finding them useful for understanding the tensions in defining computer science today (perhaps the “malaise” in Beki’s blog post).

  • The School of Computer Science (SCS) is focused on the traditional definition of computer science.  It looks inward, into improving the computer and how it functions.  Systems, networking, programming languages, theory, and compilers go here. Software engineering goes here, though flavors of it could go elsewhere.
  • The School of Interactive Computing (IC) looks at the boundary between the computer and everything else.  It includes human-computer interaction, learning sciences & technologies, computational journalism, and computing education research (where humans are the “everything else”), and also includes robotics, computational photography, and vision (where “everything else” is literally the world).  Intelligent systems and graphics go here, for using humans as the model for intelligence and form, but versios of each could go elsewhere.
  • The Division (soon to be School) of Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) focuses on the application of computing for advancing science and engineering.  This was the most innovative of the three.  Rich once told me that he wanted this School to provide an academic home for an important field that wasn’t finding one elsewhere.  Computer science departments often don’t tenure computational science researchers because their work may not necessarily invent new computer science, and science departments don’t tenure scientists just for being code monkeys.  This area is too important to leave adrift.

I admit that I’m a man with a hammer.  I see these three groupings at the various colleges and universities I visit, as the three competing images for what is computer science.  SCS faculty have history on their side — their view of computing is roughly what was defined in the computing curricula reports from 1968 onward.  (I do wonder if those early curricular reports may have defined CS for education too soon, before we really knew what would be important as computing evolved.)  IC faculty have modern day relevance on their side — much of the exciting new computing work that gets picked up in the press from this group.  Here in the College of Computing, these sides tussle over the shared ownership of our MS and PhD degrees in computer science.  (We don’t argue so much about the BS in CS because Threads provides enough flexibility to cover a wide range of definitions.)  Do graduate students have to take a course in Systems? In Theory?  Aren’t these “core” to what is Computer Science?  And what is “Computer Science” anyway?  Does (or should) the School of “Computer Science” have a particularly strong say in the matter?

In the latest issue of Communications of the ACM, Dennis Groth and Jeffrey Mackie-Mason argue that we need “informatics” degrees as something separate than a computer science degree.  When they list informatics academic units, they include my IC School.  They define “informatics is a discipline that solves problems through the application of computing or computation, in he context of the domain of the problem.”  That’s close enough to my “computing at the boundary with everything else.”  They are arguing that we can make greater advances in informatics by splitting those degrees off from computer science.

As we tussle over the name and identity of “Computer Science,” I increasingly value Dennis and Jeffrey’s point.  I can see that IC and CS may be different bodies of knowledge.  Computer science students ought to know about RISC processors and assembly language.  Students in IC must understand and be able to use empirical methods, especially social science methods like interviews and surveys (e.g., how to put them together well, how to avoid bias in creating them and evaluating the results).  These methods are necessary to listen to someone else, figure out their problem, and then later, figure out how the technology solves (or at least, impacts) the problem.  When I look at IC-related professionals and researchers, I see few that use knowledge of RISC processors and assembly language in their work.  The empirical, social science methods don’t fit well into CS.  I was on the committee that wrote the ACM/IEEE Computing Curriculum 2008 Update, and in particular, I was in charge of the HCI section.  We had to gut much of what SIGCHI felt was absolutely critical for students to know about working with humans (and which I agreed with) because we simply couldn’t cram more into a CS student’s four years.  IC and CS have a significant overlap, but there is a lot in each that is not in the intersection.

We tussle over these degrees and names because, in part, we fear creating a new name. We worry that students won’t be interested in a degree from computing that’s not named “computer science.”  IC co-owns our BS in Computational Media (about 300 students, ~25% female, placing students at places like Electronic Arts and Pixar) and a PhD in Human-Centered Computing (one of the few PhD programs in a computing school that is over 50% female).  Students are willing to take a gamble, and we’ll draw on a different demographic of students.

I’ve not said much here about CSE yet, but that’s because it’s not big enough to tussle yet.  Recently, I got to interview students and teachers in interdisciplinary computational science classes.  These classes don’t really work for CS (or IC) students.  The computer science being used is too simple for them (so they’re bored while the science students come up to speed), but the science is way harder than they can just jump into.  For CS students to succeed in CSE classes, they need to take a bunch of science classes to understand how real scientists are using scientific computing.  We run into the same problem as squeezing the important parts of HCI into CS — we run out of room.  As CSE grows in numbers and importance, we will eventually find that it doesn’t fit into IC or CS, either.  By separating the fields, we encourage greater research advances through tighter focus, and we create better, clearer opportunities for student learning by removing the unnecessary and spending more time on the necessary.

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AP: More takers and more fails Equity and Opportunity Threatened by Growing National “Excellence Gap”

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. uberVU - social comments  |  February 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Reddit by greenrd: Sounds like it is helping at least to attract more women to study computing, although that might be due to the content rather than the classification of the content….

  • 2. Jeff Graham  |  February 15, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    That last track is the one that has always resonated with me. Had such a thing been in existence back in the day, it’s where I would have gone. I agree that certainly at the graduate level this separation should happen. I think there is a shared core of knowledge in there somewhere, certainly much smaller that what the ACM defines as CS.

  • 3. Bonnie MacKellar  |  February 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I read that ACM article on informatics degrees, and was left wondering how these degrees are different from the Information Technology degrees that became popular in the 90’s. The only distinction that I can see is that traditionally, IT degrees were either housed in the business school or were “business-friendly”. So is Informatics just IT without the business/management emphasis?

  • 4. Top Posts —  |  February 15, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    […] Cleaving Computer Science: A Time for New Degrees The former Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, Rich DeMillo, established three schools within the […] […]

  • 5. Eric Berquist  |  February 16, 2010 at 12:05 am


    I agree completely, except it is something that I wish I could participate in right now as an undergraduate. Unfortunately it also seems like most CS and physical/life science departments are currently ill-suited to provide such practical integration.

  • 6. Alex Rudnick  |  February 16, 2010 at 12:48 am

    These days, I’m working on my PhD in “CS” at Indiana University. Over here, there’s a fairly stark split between the “Informatics” and the “CS” groups. They’re trying to pave it over, but it’s hard. The groups — especially the students! — don’t seem to talk much, and it seems like a special case for a student in one degree program to take classes offered by the other one.

    Looking back, one of the things I really enjoyed about Tech was how many different courses were available, and counted towards my CS degree. I got to take classes with Thad, Charles Isbell and Jeff Pierce, where we applied machine learning to build interfaces that people might actually use, educational technology with Janet Kolodner, and what amounted to a philosophy-of-science class with Nancy Nersessian. And they were all pretty great!

    Notionally, many of the same things are available at IU, but they’re split up into different departments, and it’s not totally clear what’s going to count towards one’s degree here. Things that seem like they should be CS-flavored, like information retrieval or machine learning, show up in places like Library Science or Psychology.

    In retrospect, at Tech, I was trusted to pick out courses that were relevant and interesting to me and my development as a technologist or social-sciences researcher, or whatever. I think there’s a danger in splitting things up too much. In the end, we’re just people asking questions and trying to answer them. Sometimes we use computers.

    • 7. Lindsey Kuper  |  February 16, 2010 at 1:55 am

      A university as big as IU (or any big organization with a lot of independent research groups) is probably always going to have a little bit of a left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-hand-is-doing problem. But I think that the disconnect between informatics and CS at IU is particularly bad because they’re in different buildings on opposite sides of campus. In an interview in 2008, when asked what challenges the school faced, Dean Bobby Schnabel said, “[W]hile we have […] an assortment of nice buildings in Bloomington, to really reach our potential we need to raise the funds for and build one building for the entire Bloomington portion of the school.” When I read the interview then, I was just starting at IU and didn’t understand why having a single building was such a big deal. Now, a year and a half in, it makes all kinds of sense.

  • 8. Chris Shaw  |  February 16, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    I think it’s in the nature of academic disciplines to split and to specialize. This is not the first
    time Computing has split. CS split from Electrical Engineering, Math and Physics in the 1960s.
    MIS departments emerged in (I think) the 1970s, Computer Engineering split from EE in
    the 1980s, and Software Engineering emerged in the 1990s.

    At Simon Fraser University, the School of Interactive Arts & Technology emerged from
    a University reorganization, and settled on its Design/Media Arts/HCI/Human Centered
    Computing mandate in response to the same technical and social forces as triggered the
    parallel emergence of SIC at GaTech.

    The central question for undergraduate curricula is:What is Absolutely Necessary?
    Students don’t have room for everything.

    With respect to Computational Science, I think one will find that it’s the science disciplines
    that drive the requirements.

  • 9. Curt Hostetter  |  February 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Clarkson University has been doing this for a while now – The Computer Science degree is essentially the same degree, but they’ve split it up into “options”.

    The options are like concentrations where you earn a minor in relation to the degree. The three options are “Information Technology”, “Software Engineering” and even a “Research” option which lets you choose exactly what you want to study. I really like this approach because it essentially let me jump-start my experience by choosing which option I wanted to orient my career with.

  • […] I mentioned earlier, I’m the School of Interactive Computing.  We do a lot of qualitative analysis around here.  A commonly heard phrase in our hallways is, […]

  • […] 8, 2010 Announcement from Georgia Tech today — related to an earlier blog post. Dear Faculty, Staff & […]

  • 12. Toko Online  |  April 8, 2010 at 2:18 am

    Nice and interesting post. I agree with Eric and Jeff. This a correct time for new degrees.

  • 13. 2010 in review from Wordpress « Computing Education Blog  |  January 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    […] Cleaving Computer Science: A Time for New Degrees February 2010 12 comments 3 […]


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