MIT ‘Rewires’ Its Comp Sci Curriculum With a New Interdisciplinary College

There is a big overhaul coming to the MIT comp sci curriculum as a result of the new interdisciplinary college of computing, which will integrate ethics.MIT has introduced an ethics course designed to help identify potential issues from new tech. Photo by Jake Belcher.

MIT is overhauling its academic structure this fall with the introduction of an interdisciplinary college of computing, which will integrate ethics into the computer science curriculum.

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, scheduled to open this September with an academic building to follow in 2022, will act as an academic “unit” distinct from the five existing schools on campus.

Dramatic growth in the computer science field and an increasing number of disciplines incorporating computer science into their curriculum, paired with community concerns about the societal impact of new technologies, pushed MIT to consider a new approach to teaching computer science.

“We were seeing just an explosion of interest in our undergraduates who wanted to major in computer science,” Provost Martin Schmidt explains. “You think about driverless cars or dockless scooters, Lime drops 500 scooters in Cambridge and Somerville and the mayors don’t know what to do with it. People were saying to us, ‘Geez, if you guys are working on these technologies, why aren’t you thinking about what the implications are when they’re deployed, and maybe you should be thinking about how policy should be framed to assist people when this deployment occurs.’ You could argue, I think, that we should be doing a better job of educating our graduates so that the social implications of what they’re working on are a habit of mind.”

Offering a single ethics course or making small adaptations to existing schools within the university wouldn’t be enough—MIT needed a complete overhaul to redirect the focus and structure of computer science and AI research, Schmidt argues.

“The easiest thing to do is just to bolt on the ethics class and say you’re done, but that’s not going to create the habit of mind that you need people to have,” Schmidt says.

“As we were looking at the challenges MIT was facing, it became very clear to us that doing something big at this scale was really the only path, and in fact it presented this huge opportunity,” he adds. “And so we did something a little bit unconventional as an academic institution: We just decided to announce that this is where we’re going. Being clear that we knew what the end goal was, we said, ‘Let’s just state that, and then go about building it.’”

The college is made possible by a $350 million gift and is part of the university’s $1 billion mission to focus on the growing opportunities and challenges in the fields of computing and artificial intelligence, according to MIT News.

MIT has established five working groups comprised of faculty, students, and staff to help conceptualize the college and implications of the project. The university is planning to add 50 faculty members and recently appointed Dan Huttenlocher as the college’s dean.

The college is still a work in progress, Schmidt emphasizes.

“The way in which we find faculty, promote them, and tenure them, we have to think of a rewiring of our processes,” he says. “I think the college, at some level, may never be fully built, because I think what we need is an organization that is a little bit more dynamic than the traditional academic organization. So we’re building it, but I fully expect that in three years, in five years, in 10 years, that this will be very much an evolving organization.”

Much of the demand for a new academic structure came directly from MIT faculty, who felt overwhelmed by the recent surge in interest in computer science, according to Schmidt. Nearly 40 percent of the undergraduate student body studies computer science or computer science and another field, while only seven percent of university faculty work within the computer science area of the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department. Classes can be as large as 700 students.

“A lot of the computing faculty were basically asking for help, because they were feeling that there was this huge transformation that’s occurring in their discipline, and they didn’t feel like they were resourced adequately, they didn’t feel like they had the right organizational structure,” Schmidt explains. “The faculty that were sort of feeling the brunt of this demand were basically saying ‘I need help.’ But also, the other disciplines were saying ‘We’re being transformed.’”

The university intends the new faculty to be a mix of computing professors, “bilinguals” who are versed in both computer science and an additional discipline, and academics who practice a more “applied” approach to policy and ethics, according to Schmidt.

“Imagine if you had professional staff who know how to teach ethics, who know how to teach thinking about social implications of emergent technologies,” Schmidt says. “Imagine if the staff were accessible to faculty that teach a machine learning class or a basic coding class, and imagine if those staff sort of help those faculty, imagine if they work jointly with the faculty to modify the course offering.”

This story appears in the Sept/Oct/Nov print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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