Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Back to Fundamentals: What IS Interdisciplinary Computing?

Yesterday over coffee I had one of those really stimulating conversations with an acquaintance who works in a large software company. The topic was interdisciplinary computing. With hindsight, I now see this as a prelude to a larger conversation on the same topic ("what IS interdisciplinary computing?") that I expect to have late next week with a larger group of people from academia and industry.

It wasn't long into our meeting before I was reminded of the very fundamental excitement and challenges that start with just trying to define the term and jump off from there.

Some questions we enthusiastically tangled with:

What IS interdisciplinary computing? Is it... computer science embedded in other fields (e.g. earthquake simulation) where the people involved may have CS or other backgrounds (e.g. earth science or physics)?

If yes, does this count as "applied computing" and not "true computer science" (whatever that means, and we followed that conversational path for a while).

Is interdisciplinary computing the embedding of computational thinking in another field? (please define computational thinking....everyone is using it these days, but a commonly accepted definition is elusive)

Is interdisciplinary computing the equality of a merge between two fields - and within the educational system does this mean within a university computing department...or a cooperative endeavor b/w two departments (communications/digital media and computing for example), or a formal merge of two or more departments?

How do you successfully connect with the arts and humanities? When you move away from other STEM disciplines the challenge in establishing effective communication and trust magnifies, but so do the wonderful possibilities. We ran with this topic for a while.

What about K-12? This is a topic we did not delve into too deeply this time, but it looms large.

What does all of the above have to say about the content of a degree program in computing? The never ending question about the first year of coursework ... most of you are probably quite familiar with this line of discussion. Programming, not programming, programming with a new twist or theme or application, ... how to show the ubiquity of computing in that first year in an engaging way, which is the time period when we lose most of the students we lose?

What does industry want in its graduates in terms of interdisciplinary computing skills - it depends who you ask. In some meetings of the ACM Education Council a while back, we invited panels of industry speakers to talk about what they are looking for in graduates. The answers were all over the map and were influenced by such factors as size (large corporation vs. smaller company), corporate and divisional focus (product development, research, technical marketing etc).

If ideally, a liberal education is supposed to teach students to think critically, how does one's interpretation of interdisciplinary computing, the competing demands of those who might hire your graduates, and enrollment concerns tie in with philosophical stance on a computing education?

Speaking of philosophical stance...the question came up at one point: should computing departments even exist? Ooooo. So many holes to fall into in tackling that question.

If what form? If no, what should happen instead?

We considered these and other questions until the remains of my latte were cold and the foam solidifying in my mug. I suspect we could have kept talking had each of us not had other things to take care of yesterday.

Periodically being brought back to the fundamental questions of "what is" and "what does it imply" are very important when considering implementing large scale change - as many of us are either doing or considering doing.

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