Writing has long been seen and supported as an essential skill across the Colby curriculum. Computing concepts are next in line. 

The Colby Computer Science Department, long a leader in interdisciplinary innovation in the discipline, has, with Mt. Holyoke and Union colleges, received a $344,671 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop ways to support other academic departments’ teaching of computing concepts and to explore the concept of “computing across the curriculum.”

The plan, in part, is to develop a sort of open-source computing curriculum that could be used by other colleges to teach all students these increasingly vital skills.

“It’s really trying to figure out how we can engage students who are not taking typical CS courses and get them the computational skills, computational thinking, computational concepts that will help them be more successful,” said Professor of Computer Science Bruce Maxwell.

Students in Colby’s computer science classes work collaboratively by building teams to most effectively solve their assignments.

At Colby, Maxwell will work with Associate Professor of Computer Science Stephanie Taylor and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ying Li, along with Mt. Holyoke and Union faculty—Jean E. Sammet Professor of Computer Science Valerie Barr and Associate Professor of Computer Science Kristina Striegnitz, respectively—to develop the curricular offerings, beginning with considering just what computer concepts all students should know no matter what field they choose to study and what career path they enter.

The concepts, coupled with pedagogical techniques, will be implemented and later assessed at the three institutions. One model is the Introduction to R course taught at Colby, intended to give non-computer science majors working knowledge of the programming language. Maxwell said the course will be offered at Mt. Holyoke and Union to see if the concept succeeds in another setting, and to see whether other short-form CS courses could be developed to support other departments. “A second model is to work with non-CS faculty to help them identify and teach some of the core computer science concepts within the context of their own discipline so that students can better generalize computational concepts they are already learning and using,” Maxwell said.

The evolution of computing has allowed for more data collection and analysis, but only an understanding of core computing concepts makes full use of that computing power possible.

“Where is the data stored? How’s the data moving around? How is the data being manipulated?” Maxwell said. “What kinds of computations are possible to do with this data in a realistic amount of time? If you understand these things, then you can adapt to new applications, to new programs. You can ask better questions, you can propose new processes.”