Friday, January 7, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing: Finding Common Ground, Experiencing Joy, Tangible Benefits

I spent the day meeting with a group of 15 dynamic people from around the country from academia and industry, who are all passionate about and actively involved in some way with interdisciplinary computing. At the helm of our 2 day meeting: Boots Cassel from  Villanova University Computing Sciences and Ursula Wolz from The College of New Jersey Computer Science. This was the first of several meetings and we were there to begin an ongoing conversation about how to support interdisciplinary computing education. This was our "why are we here and where are we going" meeting. Day 1.

Boots made a comment early on that stuck with me: "We need to give as much as we get".  That phrase reflected the tenor of our conversation even as we wrestled with definitions, perspectives, categories, labels, experiences and visions. 

I previewed the question of what interdisciplinary computing is last week - imagine that conversation magnified, expanded and fueled by 15 never shy, highly experienced practitioners.

That is where the fun started, and continued...Around more delicious food than I can begin to describe (we'll see in a few days if I can still walk upright) we started off by  working to establish common ground and perspectives. Almost immediately we were directed into small breakout groups for sharing our best experiences with interdisciplinary computing, the setbacks we experienced, and what an ideal climate for interdisciplinary computing education would look like. 

It is always nice to start out on a high note, and considering that overall, the day was one big high note (I don't think I'm out on a limb by making that generalization) I'll share this post on part of our pre-lunch breakout conversation - the process of discussing some of our best experiences with interdisciplinary computing. 

Besides, I need to keep my head from exploding with the effort of trying to say too much in too small a space. 

Finding Common Ground. People shared their satisfaction and joy when faculty from different disciplines reached out to successfully work together, overcoming hurdles (different topic) and creating something - a class, a curriculum, a project, an internship, research, a job - that neither could have done without the expertise of the other - as equals.  1 + 1 != 2 Rather, 1 + 1 > 2  (I hope my tired colleagues don't take that literally and think all the food has addled my brain)

Finding Common Ground.  Between combinations (pick any) of universities, K-12, industry, disciplines, departments, various sciences, humanities. It is a cultural issue as well as a content issue.

There is clearly something wonderful that happens when people from across disciplines and associated cultures work successfully together. Aside from the practical point that it "looks good", it feels good, judging by the way people were telling their stories. A few of us did a little bit of hopping around in our seats and there was the occasional gesticulating of limbs.

Not only students, but faculty are able to view the world in a new way when a computing person and another disciplinary person successfully collaborate and break new ground. One approach, discussed particularly enthusiastically and with many examples by Bob Panoff from the non-profit Shodor, was the power of harnessing computing technology to find common ways to describe the world through modeling and bringing phenomena to life. Stories form in people's minds and the world takes on new meaning.

Someone pointed out that in these collaborations, we are forced to address issues, details and concepts we never would have thought of otherwise. 

Personally, I would prefer to say that I am "privileged" to address issues, details and concepts I would not have thought of or encountered otherwise. To me,  interdisciplinary computing, especially when it improves people's lives in some way, however small, is a constant exciting exploration and adventure.

Tangible Benefits to Students. Industry jobs are often (always?) interdisciplinary in some way so employers like students who have these skill sets through direct experience. For example, they work better on teams and can more easily shift to new areas within their company. 

Many new terms were tossed up for consideration just within this part of the conversation: convergence; intertwining, cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, inclusiveness. 

A lot of good things to think hard and deeply about.

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