This article is published in the September 2006 issue.

Education: Research by Another Name

By the time you hold this issue of CRN in your hands, the fall semester will be well underway. New students will be walking the hallways, revised course materials will be online and yes, that bane of all academics—committee meetings—will have returned. Hence, it seems appropriate to consider the continuum of research and education as we recommence our academic roles.

I call it “the Tom Sawyer effect,” where Tom convinces a peer group that fence painting is a privilege. How many times have you lured students into research by calling it a class project? You know the drill—either assign students to small teams or let them self-select, and then require them to generate draft project descriptions that you modify and approve. At the end of the semester, you encourage the teams that produced the best projects to invest additional time and write a conference paper. Is it education or research? Does it matter?

As we examine how to reshape the perception of computing—not as a profession dominated by male geeks who work in windowless rooms, but as a vibrant, integrative and social activity that provides solutions to important problems—the larger questions loom. How do we convey the sense of excitement and discovery that entices the best minds of a new generation? How do we create a continuum of education and research that redefines our public image and attracts new talent?

Unlike Tom Sawyer, we are selling the real deal: computing research is a wonderfully exciting thing, exposing students to much more than the canon of knowledge in our standard texts. Many of our students already know this, as they explore new technologies via internships, collaborative teams and social networking. Research is not just for graduate students; it is part of a larger notion of self-directed learning that can and should permeate the entire educational milieu.

In the coming months, CRA will be defining what, if any, role it should play in helping to shape the future of computing education. As the Computing Research Association, our charter and focus are on research, not curriculum. The latter is rightly the province of ACM and IEEE in their roles as standards bodies; any CRA educational activities must be complementary to and in partnership with these organizations.

Instead, I expect CRA to focus on the intersection of research, image and education to build community consensus on emerging research opportunities, change the image of computing, and discuss new approaches to computing education. As I described at Snowbird in my “State of CRA” presentation, this tripartite approach builds on discussions arising from the annual Leadership Summit of computing organization leaders.

At Snowbird, Rick Rashid, chair of the Image of Computing Task Force, discussed plans to create a sense of excitement about computing education, research and applications. In that spirit, I offer a comment from the late Peter Medawar:

I am often asked, “What made you become a scientist?” But I can’t stand far enough away from myself to give a really satisfactory answer, for I cannot distinctly remember a time when I did not think that a scientist was the most exciting possible thing to be.

All of us have felt that joy. It is, after all, why most of us are in computing; it is the most exciting thing we can imagine. Alas, the public and many of our students have a different, albeit incorrect, perspective: off-shoring, menial jobs, obsolescence and dying companies. We want our prospective students to know the truth: computing is ever more central to our lives; it is the place to make a difference. Our educational approaches must reflect that truth. How we make that a reality is the critical question.

Finally, it was a pleasure to see so many departmental leaders at Snowbird this past summer. The air was electric with discussions of research policies and funding, interdisciplinary education, and computing’s image. If you were not able to attend, the slides from several of the presentations, including my own “State of CRA” talk, are now on the CRA website.

Dan Reed, CRA’s Board Chair, is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor and Vice-Chancellor for Information Technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Contact him at: Dan_Reed [at]

Education: Research by Another Name