This article is published in the September 2010 issue.

Education a Hot Topic at Snowbird Conference

It seems so obvious that it hardly needs to be repeated: the future of computing research depends on a reliable pipeline of talented young researchers who share a passion for expanding the boundaries and advancing the frontiers of computation. As the organization that represents academic and industrial computing research in North America, CRA has a vital interest in ensuring the health of the research pipeline. In 2008, after consulting with many organizations, the CRA Board established the CRA Education Committee (CRA-E) and charged it with finding ways for CRA to take additional responsibility for the continued flow of quality researchers to the field.

In the summer of 2008, Andries van Dam from Brown University convened CRA-E —the Mark I committee as it has become known. Mark I was a panel of world-class computing researchers and educators who were asked to identify and recommend best practices for preparing undergraduates for research careers in computing. At an inaugural meeting at the 2008 Snowbird conference, the committee developed as its mission statement:  “Our charter is to explore the issues of undergraduate education in computing and computational thinking for those who will do research in disciplines from the sciences to the humanities. As technology and teaching methodologies continue to evolve, how should programs in computer science, computational science, and information science co-evolve? Can we communicate a core set of ideas, principles, and methodologies that is domain-independent?”

The committee’s subsequent work produced a White Paper that was released at CRA’s Conference at Snowbird in July. The paper documents best practices and provides six recommendations for institutional structures, principles, and mechanisms to support undergraduates in acquiring the skills needed for computationally oriented research in all fields.

The recommendations are arranged into three thematic groups:

  1. foundational computational thinking courses, including contextualized versions that address current student interests;
  2. approaches that combine a leaner-than-traditional “common core” with greater breadth and flexibility in specialization through various kinds of tracks and through integrated joint majors; and
  3. identification of cognitive, mastery, and research skills, including design under constraints, that should pervade the entire curriculum.

The 100+ page White Paper contains a wealth of resources, including copious references and exemplar courses and curricula to provide tools for implementing the recommendations. A summary of their findings and recommendations appears elsewhere in this issue of Computing Research News. The full report is available here.

As the CRA-E Mark I committee was completing its work, the CRA Board looked to establish ongoing programs and projects and to seek the broadest possible engagement from CRA members in tracking, influencing, and aiding the educational programs that feed the research pipeline—thus the creation of CRA-E Mark II under the leadership of Rich DeMillo. Their inaugural report, pointing towards ongoing and future activities, also appears in this issue of CRN.

Education a Hot Topic at Snowbird Conference