Tuesday, January 18, 2011

An Ideal Environment for Interdisciplinary Computing

After discussing the benefits of engaging in interdisciplinary computing and the challenges we face we considered what an ideal climate for fostering interdisciplinary computing efforts might look like. If you recall from the earlier posts about this meeting, these conversations took place our first morning, as a sort of "lay it all out on the table" exercise. The intent at this stage was not to eliminate ideas that might be arguably "impossible or impractical", nor to come to a consensus or final list.

I found it very productive to go beyond the initial benefits and challenges conversations to a discussion that drew upon those ideas. This was where some real sizzle came into the conversation. By this point people were ready to rock and roll* with their visions. Some ideas were familiar and some were not; sometimes one idea might appear to contradict another idea. But it was all material to sink one's teeth into.

I'd like to share some of these brainstormed ideas; they provide food for thought and are a pre-requisite to the inevitable "what next and how do we get there" questions.

Hopefully they will pique your imagination as they did mine.

- The vertical school based system is eliminated i.e. topics are not rigidly identified as belonging in a specific year.
-  Coursework at the college level is not limited to people who already have "the background" (this phrase is in quotes because defining it is a very interesting discussion in itself!)
- There exists a highly supportive environment for people to build bridges between disciplines, share perspectives and talk. This will produce greater trust, competence and value.
- At the college level each department creates two endowed chairs whose focus is on the support and development of interdisciplinary computer science / computing.
- Budgets include a guaranteed line item dedicated to interdisciplinary computer science / computing.
- People on campus who are dedicated to interdisciplinary efforts are actively located and supported at all levels (administration, staff, faculty).
- We locate other models outside of computer science where interdisciplinary collaborations already work, we study and learn from them.
- Colleges and universities reward interdisciplinary work with tenure.
- Recognition that the issues and focus are different at the K-12 (pre-college) and college level.
- Recognition that there is more to computer science than programming and we model that recognition in the classroom.
- We include more visualization (through any of a number of mechanisms) in computer science coursework.
- Vertical communication within a university is smooth.
- Peer reviewed journals that cross disciplinary boundaries are highly valued.
- Workload assignments recognize that interdisciplinary computer science / computing teaching and research may take extra time and workloads are adjusted accordingly.
- There exist more social venues for informal but critically important interactions in interdisciplinary computer science / computing work - conferences, workshops. Increase those  "water cooler conversations".

- Intellectual content from all represented fields are equally present. This point came up often, in various guises, during the two days we met.

Having intellectual content from each discipline is critical if we want to avoid the perception that interdisciplinary computer science is the application of computing to another field and nothing more.

* We were staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, which in addition to providing all the meeting facilities and services of a more traditional hotel, was another "think outside the box" experience.

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