Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interdisciplinary Computing Meeting 3: Day 2

My computer screen is still on an acid trip - perhaps more so. Tonight it is purple and orange with green swirls and oozing deep amoeba-like dripping drooling things. But the keys work, so I can continue to talk about the meeting. The same caveats apply as yesterday, about typos, lack of links and copy editing. My notes from today are doubly challenged as I not only took them half blind but am now reading them back to myself more blind. However, I consider this an interesting cognitive challenge.


We started the morning with a faculty panel that seeded a discussion of challenges to Interdisciplinary Computing (IC) as well as interesting experiences. One particularly interesting speaker was Teresa Nakra from the Music Department at The College of New Jersey. She conducted an opera as part of her early music studies and later went to the MIT media lab where she worked with Rosalind Picard (of Affective Computing fame) on digital opera. Teresa spoke about designing a jacket for the conductor to wear which took readings of a variety of activities that were going on during the performance of the opera. Teresa spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of opera, which is probably not something many people in computing think of. This subject matter rang some bells for me, as one of my undergraduate degrees was in Drama, which field led me indirectly into the computing field. At that time everything was analog (certainly not the case now) but there were these interesting engineers in the lighting booth and one thing led to another and...

We spoke in more depth today about the various constituencies that are involved in the success or failure of IC and discussed ways to engage with them and foster a climate conducive to IC. A particularly interesting question came up:

Would it be preferable, in an ideal world, to have a greater preponderance of dual (or multi) subject matter experts or to have a greater number of computing professionals who are fluent enough in another field to hold serious conversations in that (those) field(s) without being a SME (pronounced "SMEE")? 

We as a group had varied views on the matter and this led to a very productive discussion of the implications of each. What do you think? What scenario would be better for the fostering and ongoing success of Interdisciplinary Computing?

In another breakout session that I sat in on we discussed obstacles faced by industry. Interestingly enough, one of the topics that came out without my initiating it, was the very interdisciplinary nature of UX work in industry - short for User Experience if you aren't familiar with the term. Interesting to me, because I have been working on UX , and have written about UX a few times in this blog. It is clearly an interdisciplinary  area of work - computing, psychology, art, design, development - depending upon one's emphasis, these and other disciplines can be central. UX is a clear point of connection between academic interdisciplinary computing work and industry. Much of Computer Science Education research work can or does fall under the UX umbrella.

In discussing the challenges faced by industry it became clear that there is no universal set of challenges and it is hard to make any generalizations that stick. Large companies may have more time to allow people to come up to speed and may have time and resources for some cross training; small companies may have to get something delivered yesterday. Traditional hi-tech companies may have one set of IC needs whereas the health care IT industry may have a vastly different set of requirements (must one have medical background? someone suggested this might well be the case). Non-profits, for-profit companies - different types of missions, thus different challenges. These discussions also led to a brief conversation about how to prepare students in very concrete ways - such as providing advice on developing resumes. Does one want to be a generalist or a specialist within the IC world? If one is working in an IC area, in other words, to what extent should one narrowly niche and to what extent should one be broad? These questions relate back to the question about whether it would be preferable to have dual SMEs or single area SMEs with a solid working knowledge in other areas.

So you see, we were beginning to pick up on patterns of issues that have to be carefully considered and addressed (and we did have discussions on these subjects). I wish I had room to delve deeply into it, but there will eventually be a formal report from the organizers  of these meetings (Ursula Wolz and Boots Cassel) and some of the ideas I mention will no doubt be part of the discussion there.

Another theme that came up again and again, yesterday and today, was the need for communication strategies among people who are involved in IC. Support mechanisms to facilitate communication, formal (workshops, meetings, regional structures to support ongoing conversations) and informal (funded lunches as one idea. A little pizza can go a long way), in-service activities specifically targeted at IC collaborations, mentoring opportunities to bring in and support new colleagues.

Publicity, outreach, and awareness raising came up a lot today. If we are to affect Hearts, Minds and Culture, (a phrase from yesterday) then we must start putting the whole notion, appeal and benefits of Interdisciplinary Computing into people's minds in many different ways. If the general citizenry and youth perceive IC as interesting, and a part of the fabric of society, then we will go a long way towards achieving a major shift towards accomplishing many of the more discrete goals of IC.

Along these lines, I will conclude this once again longish post (and one that is killing my eyes!) with another amusing moment from today. Someone brought up the information that when the original Chuck E Cheese was developed it incorporated a model of exposing entire families to the "product" and thus gaining buy-in from families, and that, get this, Chuck E Cheese was THE premier place for showcasing technology to children through robotics. A member of our group personally remembered this. According to one perspective, the robotic approach didn't quite work out because it scared children (oops).

However, overall the "engage the entire family" model was successful and has continued, spreading to many other companies. Some highly creative soul in our group suggested "CyberCheese" as a name for an Interdisciplinary Computing marketing campaign. Engage the entire family in computational interaction. If the entire family is engaged, parents, kids, extended family, friends - things could take off.

After I about died laughing at the name, I realized...hey...this idea isn't so bad is it?

This post was updated on 11/10/11 to fix typos and add links.


  1. You don't need a medical background to work in healthcare IT (informatics?). I don't, and most of the people that I know in the field do not, including both researchers and people who do applied work. You do need the ability to work closely with people who have the medical background, and to listen and learn.

  2. Hi Bonnie,

    Thanks for the first-hand information. My own experiences talking with people in healthcare IT/Informatics as I performed research for my book support your experiences. Listening and learning are absolutely vital - and not just in this context.