I’m attending the Association of Computing Manufacturers Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (ACM SIGCSE) Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this week. On Thursday (03/11/2010) I attended six presentations of papers, one keynote address to first time conference attendees and one round-table discussion. The following is a summary of what I heard.
Expanding the Frontiers of Computer Science: Designing a Curriculum to Reflect a Diverse Field
Mehran Sahami, Alex Aiken and Julie Zelenski, Stanford University
Stanford revised their curriculum in 2007 adopting a flexible track based model with nine different areas of specialization. They recorded a 40% increase in CS students in 2008 and a 20% increase in 2009. They attribute about half of this increase to their curriculum changes and the rest to other factors that institutions nationwide are also experiencing.
Students can choose an area of specialization (the tracks mentioned were human-computer interaction, graphics, information, biocomputation, AI, theory, and systems ) or can choose not to specialize and simply sample courses among the various tracks. The flexibility their program offers allows students to pursue their own interests and also pulls in students from other disciplines to take CS classes.
Stanford adopted the track-based model due to the rapidly evolving multidisciplinary role of computers. They stressed that they did not feel that they had sacrificed the quality of their program in this process, but rather had tightened the program and made it more relevant by providing more context for CS work. They also sited a 2001 IEEE-ACM report on undergraduate computing curriculum as endorsing a track-based model such as the one they have adopted.
Another interesting thing they have done is to create a probability class for CS majors, taking the class out of the math department and focusing the work on problems more relevant to CS students.
Connecting Across Campus
Mark LeBlanc, Tom Armstrong and Mike Gousie, Wheaton College
This talk started by asking why other departments don’t require computer classes in their majors. The sciences usually require classes from other science disciplines, but not usually classes on how computers are used in their subject of study.
Wheaton has adopted a multidisciplinary curriculum that requires students to take two pairs of “linked courses.” For example, they offer a “Computing for Poets” class that incorporates scripting and text mining to answer research questions in literature which is linked to an English class on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Other examples of linked courses are web design and graphic arts, a biocomputation class using a “DNA as information” metaphor with a philosophy ethics course, a robotics and gaming course with a philosophy logic class and an intelligent systems class with a cognition class in psychology.
The speaker noted that they have had a substantial increase in the number of women taking the connected courses and that the effect of their curriculum change has been to energize their CS instructors and instructors from other departments who now recommend that students take computer science classes.
Women in Computer Science: An Evaluation of Three Promising Practices
Christine Alvarado and Zachary Dodds, Harvey Mudd College
Harvey Mudd College has implemented three practices that they feel have substantially increased the number of women majoring in computer science.
The first of these practices was an overhaul of their introductory computer science class. Their approach in this class has been to demystify computer science and to attempt to allow all students to find something interesting in the field. Students work together in pairs and also have some flexibility in their choice of assignments. Students can choose among assignments based on their experience level and their areas of interest.
The second practice was participation in Grace Hopper Celebrations (GHC) for women in their first year of the CS program. This participation appears to allow the women to form more of a sense of community. GHC also offers scholarships to women in computing. (The Wikipedia article on Grace Hopper notes that the quote “It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” is often attributed to her.)
The third practice was to provide a paid research experience for first/second year female students. They hire 10-12 women to do summer research projects which have included writing games and participating in robotics competitions.
As a result of these three practices, the percentage of the women at Harvey Mudd majoring in CS now exceeds the percentage of men (as a function of the total number of women/men at the college).
What is Computation?
Keynote Address by Peter Denning, Naval Postgraduate School
Dr. Denning’s lunchtime address focused on his definition of what “computation” consists of. He briefly discussed the history of this question and the recent refocusing of attention on the problem of defining computation. He then gave an overview of the “halting problem” and the related work of Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Alonzo Church and Emil Post. He also alluded to recent work on natural computation as calling into question some of our assumptions about what constitutes a computation.
Quoting Edsger Dijkstra that “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes,” Dr. Denning described a semiotic (though he never used that word) model of computation in which “representation is more important than algorithms.”
Dr. Denning mentioned the book, “Finite and Infinite Games” by James P. Carse which is philosophically related to the halting problem and the Jennifer S. Light’s essay “When Computers Were Women” about the women (one of them the wife of John Mauchly) who programmed the ENIAC.
I found Dr. Denning’s talk interesting, but was confused by his lack of reference to semiotics as the model of computation he described obviously borrowed extensively from this field.
Social Networking: The New Computer Fluency?
Tarsem S. Purewal Jr., The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
This talk was given by my friend and colleague Dr. Semmy Purewal from UTC. He told me about the SIGCSE conference when I met him at the 2009 Mid-Southeast Regional ACM Conference in Gatlinburg (for which I am indebted to him).
Dr. Purewal discussed a “Social Networking” class he taught at the College of Charleston in Spring 2009. He described his objectives in the class as being to impart practical CS knowledge, to improve retention in the CS program and to discuss the social and ethical implications of social media technology.
Some of the questions Dr. Purewal raised in the class concerned the amount and accuracy of the information shared on social media sites. For example, where does one draw the line on what information to share and does the information chosen to share paint a “real” view of the person?
Topics covered in the class included network technology, security and privacy, computational thinking, web entrepreneurship, social, legal and ethical issues. During the course of the class, students used Facebook, Twitter, job search sites, Wikipedia, Google Docs, and mint.com (in addition to other tools) and discussed their underlying technologies. Other topics included TCP/IP, cloud computing, WEP vs WPA, media site/IP tracking, password selection, encryption, and social media business models.
The class was primarily small group discussion-oriented and made liberal use of YouTube and online lecture material.
As with all of the work I have seen from Dr. Purewal, this class was well constructed and executed and challenged students to look beyond the course material toward the social and ethical implications of our technology.
Educating the Next Generation of Spammers
Joel Sommers, Colgate University
Dr. Sommers described an interesting networking class that he teaches at Colgate University that has no prerequisites and aims to be flashy and inspiring in order to draw students into the CS program. The purpose of the class was to familiarize students with the “underside of the Internet,” to “learn by doing,” and to introduce students to the problems and promise associated with the production and consumption of computers and Internet-ready devices.
The class starts out by looking at the underlying technologies of the Internet (TCP/IP, packets, etc.) and the use of traceroute to examine packet routing. Dr. Sommers then discusses spam, how spam filters work and the use of the open source tool SpamAssassin to filter spam. Subsequent topics include web performance prediction, TCP/IP performance monitoring, estimating personal power consumption, breaking simple ciphers, port scanners, intrusion detection, and finally firewalls and other means of protection.
During their personal power consumption assignment, Dr. Sommers has students attempt to estimate their personal daily power consumption by using a digital multimeter on electronic devices under various performance conditions. He has students bring in their Xboxes and other other electronic devices and measure their power consumption. The result of the project is an estimate by each student of how much coal they cause to be consumed on a daily basis. He said the result were often quite scary (sometimes greater than 2 pounds of coal per day).
Dr. Sommers said that the course was great, but the setup for classes is often very complex. While students love the class, he said that it makes the IT people at Colgate very nervous.
Teaching the Principles of the Hacker Curriculum to Undergraduates
Michael Locasto, George Mason University; Sergey Bratus and Anna Shubina, Dartmouth College
This presentation described a “Hacker Curriculum” used at Dartmouth College for training undergraduates for the Secure Information Systems Mentoring and Training Program and for the their Cyber Security Initiative (CSI). The curriculum is presented in a 10-day, 8-9 hour/day summer program (SISMAT) that includes traditional classroom lectures, real world experience through an paid internship and follow-on research. Students must sign a non-disclosure agreement and undergo a background check in order to participate.
Administration at Dartmouth became more interested in the CSI following a recent security breach which compromised some administrative salary information.
The Hacker Curriculum used in the program is intended to force students to question their trust/control assumptions of computing and networking technology and to provide them with a “Security Culture Shock” as the realization of the implications of these assumptions begin to sink in. The assumption behind the curriculum is that just as doctors can kill as well as heal, and policemen can be destroy as well as protect, and locksmiths can break into places as well as help us to lock them, hackers can help secure systems as well as intrude into them.
The Hacker Curriculum stresses learning from failure modes as opposed to the traditional teaching paradigms which stress respecting API and other system boundaries. Students are encouraged to use reconnaissance and discovery as a means of learning. Techniques discussed in the class include packet sniffing and interception, various injection methods, spoofing and firewalking.
Teachers in the program take students to the Black Hat DefCon with the idea being that only when they know the “dark side” can they be turned toward the light. A good point made during the presentation is that instead of shunning the hacker community, we should attempt to learn from it and use it for “white hat” purposes.
Additional information can be found at:
“Birds of a Feather” Roundtable Session – Apple’s New Tablet Device in CS Education
Daniel Neumann, Indiana Wesleyan University
Since the iPad isn’t slated to ship until April 2010, this session was a mostly speculative round-table discussion of how it might be used in education. Some of the topics discussed were the iPad as a “Harry Potter” type book (the realization of the moving picture newspaper from the “Harry Potter” movies), as a truly interactive library of books that realizes the potential of hypermedia, as a platform for lecture podcasts, as a platform for cloud applications and as the final realization of Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad.
Other implications of the introduction of the iPad that were discussed included the increased3G/4G usage (2000-fold increase over the next couple of years?), the impact on application cost expectations (many apps are $0.99 on the Apple App Store), the entrepreneurial opportunities afforded by the platform, the possibility of Apple challenging Amazon as a book store and the possibility of their adoption of a book rental model.
It was also noted that early adopters will get bragging rights, but the device will likely need to evolve as the iPod did before it becomes a truly great platform.
All in all, this was a lively discussion, but almost entirely speculative. I enjoyed it anyway.
More to come as the conference continues…