A few months ago I was talking to a group of freshmen who had just decided on their major. I asked them how they had made that decision.
One young man told me that he had been torn between mechanical engineering versus electrical engineering and computer science. After a lot of careful thought, he had finally opted for mechanical. I told him that was a great major, but asked what had finally crystallized his decision. His response was that he was really excited about design, and thought that mechanical engineering was a better option. Out of curiosity, I asked him for his favorite example of a well-designed product; his response was to reach in his pocket and pull out his iPhone. Somewhat surprised, I asked him what he thought was inside the iPhone – a bunch of tiny gears?
Now perhaps this was a slightly confused young man, but the story carries a message for our community. Further discussion revealed that he was fascinated as much with the uses of the iPhone – games, applications for search, social networking opportunities, and other enabling software applications – as he was with the device itself. Somehow the coolness of the device itself, its sleek form factor, and its display system translated in his mind into the mechanical design of the physical manifestation, rather than the software, the algorithms, or the computational architecture that is the heart of the system.
While the story may be specific to this young man, I worry that it is symptomatic of a larger issue – that we as a community are losing the design competition. Clearly there are still many students and faculty members who are attracted to computational endeavors because of the great opportunity for design – whether of software systems, distributed networks, clever algorithms, interactive interfaces, intelligent appliances, or creative applications of existing techniques. But for many students, somehow the excitement of design in computation, whether it is design of the elements of a computational system or using a computational system as an integral tool in the design of something else, is being obscured or lost. We need to recapture that excitement. We need it to maintain a healthy influx of new talent into the field by attracting bright students with novel ideas that will spur the next set of great new ideas to computing research, not to other areas of engineering. We need it to ensure the creation of the intellectual foundations and technological infrastructure that will support the generation of new commercial enterprises. And we need it to enhance the central role of computation in the broader realm of design.
Recapturing the excitement of design in computation, and communicating it to students, will be a challenge. No one element will be enough; we will probably need action on many fronts. Finding ways to ensure that exciting and challenging design experiences are intertwined throughout our curricular experiences – and not just deferred to senior capstone projects or to graduate thesis work – will be important, and many institutions have found inventive ways to do this. Leveraging links to other fields to demonstrate the key role of design in computational methods in those fields will both help to attract students and demonstrate to funders the critical role of computation in design. Exploring methods to connect design opportunities in classroom and laboratory settings with real-world practitioners, through links to alumni, local companies, or others, will help provide context to motivate design ideas. And importing best practices from other domains will enable us to increase the visibility of design as a central component of computational research and development.
And maybe the next time I have a conversation with students selecting majors, I will hear how a student selected computer science because that is the obvious place to design the next generation of mechanical devices.
Eric L. Grimson is the Chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and the Bernard M. Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering at MIT.