UA School Promotes Interdisciplinary Teaching in Computation
Faculty and administrators within the UA’s interdisciplinary School of Information Sciences, Technologies and Arts are planning workshops to determine areas of focus in developing a new undergraduate curriculum.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Nov. 10, 2009

Efforts are underway to identify ways to teach computational thinking and information sciences to a broader range of undergraduates under a new curriculum being developed in the School of Information Sciences, Technology and Arts.

The University of Arizona school, also known a SISTA, has received a three-year, $800,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop the curriculum, which UA administrators intend to include foundational coursework for students within and outside of computer science.

"I think it's an exciting opportunity for students and faculty to make new connections across campus," said Suzanne Westbrook, associate head of the computer science department and principal investigator on the NSF grant.

"Computational thinking is a common thrust at the NSF right now," she said. "In computer science, we want to be involved in that discussion and to contribute." 

The NSF funding comes to the UA via the agency's CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education, which has promoted computational thinking as a fundamental skill in contemporary times.

This will be a core focus of SISTA, which was created as a result of the UA's Transformation Plan proposal and was approved during the spring. SISTA started as a virtual organization. The school can now roster faculty and, with Arizona Board of Regents approval, will begin offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. 

The NSF funding is the first step developing the interdisciplinary division. 

The school began "based on the idea that the techniques people use in thinking about problems are basically the same across disciplines," said Paul Cohen, who heads the computer science department and is the SISTA director.

Cohen is a co-principal investigator on the grant along with Joaquin Ruiz, College of Science dean and executive dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Science, and computer science Professor Saumya K. Debray.

"As far as we know this is unique. I don't think anyone else has designed an undergraduate major to teach the great and ubiquitous ideas in computation from scratch," Cohen said. Graduates of the program, he said, "will be able to talk to linguists, business people, biologists – anyone who thinks in terms of these computational ideas.”

As noted in the team's grant proposal: "Traditional curricula in most disciplines focus on ideas and issues central to those disciplines. This has the effect that students in most non-computing-related disciplines see little exposure to concepts and techniques of computational thinking."

The team noted that this is an "unfortunate" truth, particularly given increased access to information and data.

"To advance the state of human knowledge it is essential to organize and manipulate that data to produce information, and to understand that information to obtain knowledge," the proposal continued.

"Knowing how to systematically organize, reason about, manipulate and understand data is therefore a fundamental skill for the 21st century workforce that is, however, not being taught systematically on our campuses."

Westbrook, one of the UA faculty involved in writing the proposal that led to the $50 million iPlant Collaborative grant, said her work has involved "looking at how the need for solving really large problems requires people across disciplines to work together."

That coincides directly into the development of and purpose behind SISTA.

Beginning in December, the school will host meetings with faculty across disciplines to gauge which courses can be cross listed with SISTA, and which must be developed from the ground up.

The process also will include a monthly seminar series involving faculty and staff with the plan being to develop five core courses and at least two thematic courses with the first offerings going live during the fall 2010 semester. For example, studies involving social networks, planning, traffic, information ethics and biological factors are among those that could fit into the thematic coursework.

"We all speak different languages within our disciplines, but part of the challenge and excitement for me with SISTA is in finding ways to address how we can work together while teaching our students to do the same," Westbrook said.

"Perhaps in teaching how to work across disciplines early on," she said, "it will be more natural for them as they go along."


Resources for the media

Suzanne Westbrook

School of Information Sciences, Technology and Arts