Promote diversity by teaching to many goals for computing

January 11, 2021 at 7:00 am 2 comments

My Blog@CACM post for this month is about the working definitions of computing that we are developing in a task force at the University of Michigan see post here). We are charged with identifying the computing education needs for undergraduates in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LS&A). My post describes three different goals for computing education, based on what LS&A faculty do with computing and what they want their students to know.

  • Computing for Discovery
  • Computing for Expression
  • Critical Computing

In my post, I described how these are different, and about the challenges of meeting all of these educational needs. The biggest challenge I wonder about is the organizational one. Whose job is it to teach to each of these goals?

In this post, I want to argue from a different direction. All of these have a CS component. These aren’t typically priorities in many CS departments. To have more diversity in computer science, we ought to make them a priority.

There’s CS in All of These

Each of the three LS&A themes represent a significant CS research thrust. We distilled them from discussions with faculty in Literature, Sciences, & the Arts, but students could be interested in these themes and seek a computer science degree and career. I’d expect that these themes are more common among students who enter computing from liberal arts and sciences than from engineering.

Computer scientists often create infrastructure and theory for “Computing for Discovery,” from NeurIPS to ACM SIGSIM. At Georgia Tech, there is a School for Computational Science and Engineering. One of my colleagues in that school was Richard Fujimoto, who studied how to run discrete event simulations in parallel and distributed systems. He does his research so that others (scientists or engineers) could do theirs.

Computer scientists invent and create tools to make “Computing for Expression” possible, presented in places like ACM SIGGRAPH and CHI. Alanson Sample joined U-M CSE the same time I did. He was formerly at Disney Research at Pittsburgh, where some of his team worked on the new Pandora exhibits at Disney World. The animatronic Na’vi were difficult for the animators to control, since the robot representation of the aliens were not meant to be human-like. Alanson’s colleagues created new kinds of design tools to support translating facial animations into robotic actuation for the Na’vi. I love that as an example of computer science enabling a new kind of expression.

Technology Review recently published an accessible summary of the paper that led to Timnit Gebru’s being fired from Google (see link here). I knew about Timnit’s work as a scholar in “Critical Computing.” The TR piece did a terrific job explaining the deep CS ideas in their paper — like the potential fallacies of the language models used by Google and the enormous energy costs of running them. Computer science plays an important part in making thoughtful critiques of existing computing systems and infrastructures.

Supporting Diverse Goals for Diverse Students

Imagine that you are a student who has always dreamed of working at Pixar and building tools for animators. Or you are a student who is concerned about creating sustainable IT infrastructure for your community. You decide to pursue a computer science degree, and now you’re in classes about AVL trees or learning the issues between cache coherence and memory consistency. You might very reasonably drop out, to pursue a degree that move clearly helps you better achieves your goals. The problem is that that those are computer science issues. It’s perfectly reasonable to pursue computing education for those goals, but those might not be the goals that most CS Departments at Universities support.

This does happen exactly as I described. Colleen Lewis and her colleagues showed us how it most often happens with candidates who are from groups under-represented in computer science (see blog about the paper here). These students come to computer science with their goals, and if they don’t see how to achieve their goals with the classes they’re given, they lose interest and drop out. Colleen and her students showed that having goals about community values were were more common among students who were female, Black, or Hispanic than students who were male, white, or Asian.

The draft of the 2020 ACM/IEEE Computing Curriculum report is here. It’s a big document, so I might have missed it, but I don’t see these goals represented in the computer science outcomes. Some of these themes are in information systems or information technology. Some of the media fundamentals are in computer engineering. The core of computer science in the 2020 report is focused on “algorithms and complexity, programming languages, software development fundamentals, and software engineering” (quoting page 28). There is very little in the document about justice, equity, and critical consideration of our computing systems and infrastructure.

A student can certainly start from the core of CS and focus on any of these sets of goals — but do students know that? How do we communicate that to them? This was a real problem when we created the Threads program at Georgia Tech where students identify two “threads” of computing which they will combine to create their BS in CS degree program. A student who chooses Media and Theory may be interested in video compression algorithms, and a student who chooses People and Intelligence might be interested in creating explainable AI, but both of those students will be in the same data structures and discrete math classes. We (mostly Charles Isbell and Bill Leahy) made sure that the foundational classes created the narratives that explained how the foundational concepts connected to these Threads. We wanted students to see how their goals were met by the core of CS.

This might be easier in colleges focused on liberal arts and sciences with smaller classes. At my University, I taught the introduction to computing course to 760 students. We regularly have first year CS courses with over 1000 students. It’s very hard to cater to individual student goals at that scale. What we did at Georgia Tech and what we’re doing in our task force at the University of Michigan is to identify common goals and themes, and provide support and narrative for those. We will not reach all students’ goals. We aim to support more student goals than just software development in large Tech firms.

We do our students a disservice if we do not help them see how they can pursue their goals within our undergraduate programs. A computer science degree from a major University is a big deal. It’s worth a lot in the economic marketplace. Is it fair to deny the degree to students who are engaged and curious about computer science because our CS undergraduate programs focus on one set of goals and ignore the others? Computer science is broader than just what the FAANG companies hire. CS undergraduate degree programs should not just be a Silicon Valley jobs program. Universities should support diversity in CS thoughts and goals if we want to have students from diverse backgrounds in computing.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

The goal of the first CS course should be to promote confidence if we’re going to increase diversity in CS: Paying off on a bet Broadening Participation in Computing is Different in Every State: Michigan as an Example

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. BKM  |  January 11, 2021 at 9:25 am

    If a student’s goals are reflected in themes in information systems rather than computer science, perhaps that student should major in information systems. There is nothing wrong with that degree. In particular, I think it would be exactly the right degree for the student who wants to build sustainable IT infrastructures in their community. Computer science does not have to be all things to all people.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 16, 2021 at 11:03 am

      For sure — that meshes with my conclusion, that Universities should support diversity in CS thoughts and goals. Neither my current institution, University of Michigan, nor my former institution, Georgia Tech, offer an IS or IT degree. I consider IS and IT part of the diversity of CS thoughts and goals. Offering those degrees is a great way to support that diversity.


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