3 Questions: Blending computing with other disciplines at MIT
The demand for computing-related training is at an all-time high. At MIT, there has been a remarkable tide of interest in computer science programs, with heavy enrollment from students studying everything from economics to life sciences eager to learn how computational techniques and methodologies can be used and applied within their primary field.
Launched in 2020, the Common Ground for Computing Education was created through the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing to meet the growing need for enhanced curricula that connect computer science and artificial intelligence with different domains. In order to advance this mission, the Common Ground is bringing experts across MIT together and facilitating collaborations among multiple departments to develop new classes and approaches that blend computing topics with other disciplines.
Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, and the chairs of the Common Ground Standing Committee — Jeff Grossman, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor of Environmental Systems; and Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the MathWorks Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science — discuss here the objectives of the Common Ground, pilot subjects that are underway, and ways they’re engaging faculty to create new curricula for MIT’s class of “computing bilinguals.”
Q: What are the objectives of the Common Ground and how does it fit into the mission of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing?
Huttenlocher: One of the core components of the college mission is to educate students who are fluent in both the “language” of computing and that of other disciplines. Machine learning classes, for example, attract a lot of students outside of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) majors. These students are interested in machine learning for modeling within the context of their fields of interest, rather than inner workings of machine learning itself as taught in Course 6. So, we need new approaches to how we develop computing curricula in order to provide students with a thorough grounding in computing that is relevant to their interests, to not just enable them to use computational tools, but understand conceptually how they can be developed and applied in their primary field, whether it be science, engineering, humanities, business, or design.
The core goals of the Common Ground are to infuse computing education throughout MIT in a coordinated manner, as well as to serve as a platform for multi-departmental collaborations. All classes and curricula developed through the Common Ground are intended to be created and offered jointly by multiple academic departments to meet ‘common’ needs. We’re bringing the forefront of rapidly-changing computer science and artificial intelligence fields together with the problems and methods of other disciplines, so the process has to be collaborative. As much as computing is changing thinking in the disciplines, the disciplines are changing the way people develop new computing approaches. It can’t be a stand-alone effort — otherwise it won’t work.
Q: How is the Common Ground facilitating collaborations and engaging faculty across MIT to develop new curricula?
Grossman: The Common Ground Standing Committee was formed to oversee the activities of the Common Ground and is charged with evaluating how best to support and advance program objectives. There are 29 members on the committee — all are faculty experts in various computing areas, and they represent 18 academic departments across all five MIT schools and the college. The structure of the committee very much aligns with the mission of the Common Ground in that it draws from all parts of the Institute. Members are organized into subcommittees currently centered on three primary focus areas: fundamentals of computational science and engineering; fundamentals of programming/computational thinking; and machine learning, data science, and algorithms. The subcommittees, with extensive input from departments, framed prototypes for what Common Ground subjects would look like in each area, and a number of classes have already been piloted to date.
It has been wonderful working with colleagues from different departments. The level of commitment that everyone on the committee has put into this effort has truly been amazing to see, and I share their enthusiasm for pursuing opportunities in computing education.
Q: Can you tell us more about the subjects that are already underway?
Ozdaglar: So far, we have four offerings for students to choose from: in the fall, there’s Linear Algebra and Optimization with the Department of Mathematics and EECS, and Programming Skills and Computational Thinking in-Context with the Experimental Study Group and EECS; Modeling with Machine Learning: From Algorithms to Applications in the spring, with disciplinary modules developed by multiple engineering departments and MIT Supply Chain Management; and Introduction to Computational Science and Engineering during both semesters, which is a collaboration between the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Department of Mathematics.
We have had students from a range of majors take these classes, including mechanical engineering, physics, chemical engineering, economics, and management, among others. The response has been very positive. It is very exciting to see MIT students having access to these unique offerings. Our goal is to enable them to frame disciplinary problems using a rich computational framework, which is one of the objectives of the Common Ground.
We are planning to expand Common Ground offerings in the years to come and welcome ideas for new subjects. Some ideas that we currently have in the works include classes on causal inference, creative programming, and data visualization with communication. In addition, this fall, we put out a call for proposals to develop new subjects. We invited instructors from all across the campus to submit ideas for pilot computing classes that are useful across a range of areas and support the educational mission of individual departments. The selected proposals will receive seed funding from the Common Ground to assist in the design, development, and staffing of new, broadly-applicable computing subjects and revision of existing subjects in alignment with the Common Ground’s objectives. We are looking explicitly to facilitate opportunities in which multiple departments would benefit from coordinated teaching.