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New 'Threads' for Computer Science

September 26, 2006

Computer science -- like many dot.com businesses of a few years back -- has experienced a boom and bust in the last decade. First colleges couldn't expand programs fast enough to meet demand, but more recently students have been fleeing. The number of students taking Advanced Placement tests in computer science fell by 19 percent in the last three years -- even as other AP science programs were growing.

Fewer and fewer freshmen have been expressing interest in computer science. Some colleges have thrown up their hands, and pulled back on programs. Others have pushed to expand specialized fields -- such as video gaming.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is today unveiling what some experts believe is a much broader approach to the problem. The institute has abolished the core curriculum for computer science undergraduates -- a series of courses in hardware and software design, electrical engineering and mathematics. These courses, in various forms, have been the backbone of the computer science curriculum not just at Georgia Tech but at most institutions.

In their place, Georgia Tech is introducing a curriculum called Threads. There are two main parts to the curriculum:

  • In the first part, students pick two of eight possible "threads" of instruction. These are a series of courses -- with requirements that collectively are as demanding as the old core courses -- that relate to a use of computer science. For example, computational modeling deals with using computer science to represent natural and physical processes; intelligence deals with building "top to bottom models of human-level intelligence," and media involves systems "to exploit computing's abilities to provide creative outlets." There are a total of 28 possible combinations of threads that students may select. Many of the required courses will be taught involving material and faculty members outside of computer science.
  • Then in their first year enrolled, students will also track themselves by "role," picking among master practitioners (programmers), entrepreneurs, innovators or communicators. Academic advisers will work with students so that their role helps determine both their instructional choices and also their non-instructional education (making sure that entrepreneurs learn how to write business plans, for example). Students making the same "thread" choices could still end up with a different educational focus if they sought out different roles. The role is as much about having advisers keep students oriented toward a goal as about curricular requirements per se.

Underlying this approach is the view that "the one size fits all approach to computer science just isn't working anymore," said Richard A. DeMillo, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. The plans were developed by professors, who prepared a white paper outlying how this approach would create "symphonic thinking" graduates -- another way of saying graduates whose jobs wouldn't be outsourced, a fear keeping many out of the field.

"The really big change here is that we were willing to give up the idea of a core curriculum," said DeMillo. "If you have 90 percent of your courses occupied with the core, you don't have the flexibility to do anything creative."

Experts on computer science stressed that it's always dangerous to predict the impact that a major curricular reform will have. Georgia Tech's students are only now experiencing the new approach and it will take years to measure the results. But Andrew Bernat, executive director of the Computing Research Association, said he was very excited by the effort -- and saw it as significant.

"What I really like about this is that it's comprehensive," he said. Also key is that Georgia Tech has a large, respected computer science faculty and student body (when fully phased in, upwards of 1,200-1,500 students a year will be involved). "It's one thing for some outlier school to do something different, but it's a whole different thing when you have a big school that starts something this different. I think Georgia Tech clearly has the right people to try this, and it's really important that we try things like this."

Susan Merritt, dean of the computer science school at Pace University, said that she was also intrigued by what Georgia Tech is doing. For its master's program in computer science, Pace this year took its core of eight courses and cut that back to four (with the idea that many students may place out of two). At the undergraduate level, Merritt said that a major emphasis is combining computer science degrees with other departments, for example criminal justice or finance.

DeMillo said that what Georgia Tech is attempting is to take such approaches to the next level. That's because students won't be combining some computer science courses with some courses in other fields, but will have that instruction combined in all of their courses. "We've got interdisciplinarity not as something that is tacked on, but something that you have from day one."

Freshmen who were recruited for this fall's class were briefed on the Threads program, and enrollment is up 33 percent in the class. DeMillo noted that much of the recruiting of students wasn't talking just to them, but to parents. People are worried about jobs, and the effectiveness of Threads is that it creates clear career paths for students.

"A lot of this is the perception that jobs are going overseas," he said. "We haven't been presenting a very attractive career path for any person other than a narrowly defined superprogrammer. What we're trying to do is show an array of choices for careers."

Each of the tracks will also be constantly reviewed and revised, DeMillo said, and new tracks could be created. But the idea is to keep the tracks broad, and not to focus on this year's hot job, which could be next year's dud job. He predicted that colleges that try to retool computer science by focusing on hot jobs might have a few good years, but won't have much more.

"You can't be reactive in just seeing what's going on in a given industry. You aren't going to be in better shape by producing a whole generation of videogame designers and have that industry go away," he said. "You want to equip people to tell stories with technology. Now what they do with it is to design video games, but in the future it may be very different."

 

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