Russell's Blog

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Computing as a liberal arts degree

Posted by Russell on August 11, 2013 at 7:42 a.m.
I never really fit into any of the various educational programs I've attended. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what's wrong with them, because I know, of course, that there isn't anything wrong with me.

I see five big problems with higher education :

  • We draw too bright a line between "technical" and "non-technical" degrees
  • We design courses around departments instead of topics
  • We do a terrible job of integrating hands-on experience
  • We structure courses and evaluations in a strictly linear, pipeline-like way
  • We do an criminally bad job of caring for students' mental and emotional health
Biology students learn about cell culture and PCR, but they rarely have a chance to actually do these things. Computer science students learn about microprocessors, but never build one. Engineering and physics students learn about ballistics, but never actually get to try it in any meaningful way. Labs are always almost always afterthoughts, and connect poorly to the rest of the curriculum.

I would like to see at least a few colleges scrap the idea of traditional bachelors of science degree, and instead offer a liberal arts style degree focused on science and technology. I would like to see them mix in a heavy dose of practical trade-school style instruction. Get students into machine shops and out into the woods, and let them get their hands dirty. The spine of every kind of degree should be structured around history. Only history can lend any sort of coherent narrative to a big topic. Last of all, there absolutely must be some way of avoiding the classes-grades-classes-grades treadmill. The hectic academic schedule of classes and grades promotes toxic mix of self-loathing and narcissism and severely punishes any sort of reflection. There are better, easier ways of organizing instruction and evaluating students.

This is my curriculum for a liberal arts degree in technology and computing. Someone with this degree would be prepared to begin a masters degree in an engineering or technical field, but it is not intended to provide any sort of "workplace" training (although it doesn't discourage it). It would also serve as a strong base from which to purse a Ph.D. in a wide variety of topics, and would better prepare students to operate as independent researchers. In that sense, it's a liberal arts degree, not a bachelors of science. Personally, I think this would be vastly superior to any existing undergraduate science or engineering degree, both for people who go on to pursue advanced degrees and people who do not. Really successful undergraduates wind up constructing an experience something like this for themselves. Everyone would be better served if we simply made it official.

Evaluations would be based on the student's portfolio. Each of the sixteen classes would be designed around the creation of tangible artifacts that would go into the portfolio. The quality and imagination of the artifacts would determine the grade for the unit, and would be set by a panel of faculty assembled for the review. Faculty reviews of each portfolio would be archived and made available to the student. Artifacts may be replaced by the student at any time and the portfolio resubmitted for evaluation. Graduation occurs upon a positive evaluation of a complete portfolio.

The curriculum might take a bit longer than four years to complete. I would address this by offering admission to students around sixteen or seventeen years old, and select faculty with the necessary skills for mentoring adolescents. Regardless of age, the admissions process would include a formal psychological evaluation to establish the emotional preparedness of the student to engage in the program. I would would also include mandatory counseling for all students throughout the program; student who are doing emotionally well would use it as career counseling and to help them grapple with their intellectual and aesthetic priorities.

I would also encourage students to take vacations and breaks, and advise and organize these breaks through the counseling services. For struggling students, these would be no-fault opportunities to collect themselves and address personal issues. For others, they would be opportunities for internships, travel and other projects. Organizing evaluations around student portfolios would benefit both struggling and excelling students; breaks in instruction could be used to shore up specific weak spots, or to create artifacts of superlative quality.

The portfolio structure would also make it less risky to include younger students. If it is determined that a student is not emotionally prepared for college, he or she can be placed into an associated high school but continue attending the program part-time, and then re-join as a full time student once they graduate from high school. The portfolio structure would also prevent young students from rushing through the program without reaching the appropriate level of emotional and intellectual maturity deemed necessary by the faculty. It would provide a fair mechanism for the faculty to push precocious students to direct their efforts at achieving quality rather than speed.

I've also included a few topics and activities that most university programs would probably deem inappropriate, particularly related to weapons and warfare. I've done this because I think too many engineers and scientists fail to truly appreciate the destructive aspects of technology and do not develop a mature understanding of how their work is used. There is simply no getting around the fact that much of our technology is directly connected to the business of fighting and killing.

To address this, the program would require students to build, use and study weapons and their uses. This would include using stone tools to make spears, and then learning how to hunt with them, using basic metalworking to build simple firearms, and then conducting target practice on a ballistics range, and building vehicles such as sailboats and drones and using them to conduct mock battles. The scenarios would be designed to evoke questions about history and ethics, and the coursework would include studies on those topics. To make this work, the faculty would need to include military historians. This is an aspect that is totally missing from extant engineering and science curricula.

Freshman Year : Origins

History 1, Origins of Computing : A review of counting systems from different cultures, how "everyday" mathematics was actually carried out by ordinary people in ancient Greece, Rome and China. A review of early record keeping and writing technologies from Cuneiform to punch cards.

Literature 1, Origins of the Written Word : A review of the historical and linguistic development of early writing systems and technologies from each continent.

Theory 1, Foundations of Logic and Philosophy : Deductive and inductive reasoning in mathematics and rhetoric, with applications to geometry, number theory and argument.

Practicum 1, Mathematics, Writing Systems and Technologies of the Ancient World : Students will learn and perform the basics of many of the key technologies of the ancient world :

  • Stone toolmaking
  • Working bronze and copper
  • Ironworking and steel toolmaking
  • Writing in clay, papyrus, stone, wood and metal
  • Jeweling
  • Weaving
  • Weapons
  • Glass blowing
  • Ceramics
During freshman year, all transactions with the university will be carried out using contract devices of the ancient world. Meal plans will be tabulated with tally sticks, tuition and aid and Work Study with Cuneiform in clay, and books supplies and sundries using abacus and ancient Chinese coinage.

Sophomore Year : Empiricism

History 2, Birth of Computing : The invention, use and theory of the Jacquard loom. Charles Babbage and the first mechanical computers. Ada Lovelace and the concept of stored programs. Use of early mechanical computing in industry, navigation, civil society and warfare. Galileo, Newton and Darwin and the birth of Empiricism.

Literature 2, The Spread of the Written Word : The origin of modern writing systems, scripts, materials and technologies. The scroll, the codex and the library; the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible; movable type, the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions; the cryptographic systems of the Napoleonic Wars; the development of scientific reasoning in the Enlightenment and before.

Theory 2, Foundations of Algebraic Reasoning and Empiricism : Set theory and the synthesis of algebraic systems, with applications to algebra, calculus and physics. Physics will emphasize thermodynamics, and treat kinetics and mechanics in the context of heat engines. Introduction to empirical reasoning and with emphasis on the design of controlled experiments.

Practicum 2, The Technologies of the Early Modern Age : Students will construct and and operate the technologies of the early modern age :

  • Casting type and printing
  • Drafting and technical drawing
  • Machining in steel and brass
  • Making and breaking early cryptographic systems
  • Mechanized textile manufacturing
  • Techniques of mass production
  • Printing at large scales
  • Theory, construction and operation of steam engines
  • Firearms
  • Sail power
Students will transact their business with university using double entry ledgers.

Junior Year : Science & Engineering

History 3, The Science of the Three World Wars : The impact of steam power on naval and land battles of World War I; the birth of aviation; The Manhattan Project; the cracking of Enigma and Purple; the first modern computers and their uses; the computing of the Apollo Project; balistic missiles and space exploration; the Soviet computer industry; the invention of transistor and the integrated circuit; the Age of Moore's Law; the United States v. Microsoft Corporation; Linux and the Free Software movement.

Literature 3, Science Fiction and Fact : A review of the science fiction of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; case studies on the works of Jules Verne, Issac Asimov and William Gibson. A review of popular science literature and science journalism; Thomas Huxley, Issac Asimov, Carl Sagan. An introduction to the scientific literature; the case of Newton vs. Leibniz, Einstein's 1905 papers, Watson & Crick and Roseland Franklin; modern controversies in the literature. Seminars on research methods and archival practices.

Theory 3, The Language of Computing : The Turing and von Neumann concepts; the principles of computer languages; algorithms and data structures; numerical methods in mathematics and physics; statistics, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics.

Practicum 3, Modern Computing Technologies : Students will construct and operate a selection of key contemporary technologies, with an emphasis on computing :

  • Lasers, optics and radio
  • Imaging
  • Microprocessor design
  • Mechanized and digital typesetting technologies
  • Semiconductor manufacturing
  • Computing languages
  • Building compilers and interpreters
  • Device drivers
  • Networking
  • Digital signal processing
  • Operating systems internals
  • Real time computing
  • Industrial design and CAD/CAM
Students will transact their business with the university using networking technologies. The university will provide a machine readable interfaces to services, and the students must construct their own software solutions to interact with them.

Senior Year : Here & Now

History 4, Contemporary Issues in Science, Technology and Society : Climate change; poverty and development economics; alternative pathways for economic development; medicine and disease; renewable energy.

Literature 4, Communicating in Writing, Speech and Art : Practical instruction on rhetoric, writing style and visual design.

Theory 4, Topics in Science and Engineering : Focused seminars on technical topics to support Practicum 4.

Practicum 4, Capstone Project : Students will work individually or in small teams with faculty mentors on projects of their own design.

The university will endeavor to minimize direct administrative contact with students during senior year, and instead mediate through their faculty mentors.

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