NSF Supports Harvey Mudd’s Efforts to Advocate Computing Owned by All

Computing is a resource of broad potential benefit to many academic pursuits, contends a Harvey Mudd College professor who’s seeking to experiment with the field’s reach and appeal.

Leonard-Johnson-Rae Professor of Computer Science Zach Dodds was recently awarded a three-year, $298,338 grant from National Science Foundation to do just that. With local and national collaborators, he is developing a course named Computing for Insight designed to foster the use of computing across a broad range of non-computer science fields.

“Just as writing and critical thinking undergird all of the college experience, so too can computing—its skillset and mindset—contribute to many curricular pursuits,” Dodds says.

Through the proposed course, the project seeks initially to build students’ comfort and confidence using computing on open-ended problems in a variety of fields. The project will then focus that broad effort toward creative inquiry within an individual student’s primary discipline. More broadly, the project seeks to better understand whether and how computing can contribute to the goals of disciplines outside computer science.

“Computing for Insight experiments with a model inviting all disciplines to leverage computing as part of their culture, both who they are and what they do,” Dodds says. “I hope as many people as possible build a positive identity around computing and its capabilities.”

Computing for Insight layers on top of entry-level computing courses. From the procedural fundamentals, the proposed course exercises locating, evaluating and applying existing libraries.

Six undergraduates will work with Dodds and other project collaborators over the coming three summers. They will implement and test a set of discipline-specific assignments and projects. Olin College of Engineering and the University of Richmond will send students to Harvey Mudd for this summer component. They will also partner with HMC to develop a workshop about computing courses that serve non-computer science majors.

The Computing for Insight course seeks to contribute support across all of HMC’s academic departments; mathematics, physics and biology were noted specifically in the project description. The effort will also seek to support the economics department at Claremont McKenna College and the information sciences school at Claremont Graduate University.

“Those departments have expressed enthusiasm for having their students, if they choose, join as summer interns and/or take the course. Those students will help determine what computational skills, analyses and/or projects might add value in their work,” Dodds says.

Computing for Insight builds on three previous NSF-funded projects that have resulted in fundamental changes in computer science at the Claremont consortium, which now serves a much broader audience than it did a decade ago. Those projects include:

  • CISE REU Site in Computer Systems (2011–2016), a summer research program that hosted 10 undergraduates at HMC
  • The CS for All project (2009–2012) that introduced computer science and programming curriculum to students of all majors
  • Middle-years Computer Science/MyCS (2013–2016), a pilot middle-school computer science curriculum

“The Department is enthusiastic about Professor Doddss efforts to expand the utility and reach of computing,” says Melissa O’Neill, chair of the Harvey Mudd Computer Science Department. “This project invests in the relationship between computing and many other disciplines, with the goal of creating more accessible—or deeper—insights in those disciplines.”