Computer science impacts society inherently, but can it also improve it? Ten years ago, School of Computer Science Professor Ellen Zegura set off to find out.
With colleagues Michael Best, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing, and Santosh Vempala, a professor in SCS, Zegura started Computing for Good to explore how computing education could benefit the human condition. The class gave students the opportunity to help solve real-world problems, from public health to politics locally and globally. The graduate student course immediately took off and became a staple of the curriculum.
Now she’s creating a chance for undergraduates to get involved with a new class, Technology and Sustainable Community Development.
The course came out of Zegura’s work with Serve-Learn-Sustain, a campus-wide educational initiative on community sustainability. “Serve-Learn-Sustain is about creating opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to learn about and develop skills in sustainable community development largely anchored in curriculum,” Zegura said. Here, sustainability is defined as the intersection of economic, societal, and environmental sustainability.
Technology and Sustainable Community Development focuses on what sustainability means when working with communities. The course develops skill sets around the ethics of help or who decides whether something is beneficial to a community. Students learn how to listen to communities, focus on their assets rather than problems, and create participatory designs that involves community stakeholders in ideas and solutions.
“They’re getting a real chance to go out into the world and interact with people who are quite different from them,” Zegura said.
The new 3000-level course is open to anyone, but it fulfills the ethics requirement for computer science majors. The current class is 35 CS and engineering students. In the beginning of the semester, Zegura lectured on these skills but also invited professors from other schools to engage students, such as School of Interactive Computing Assistant Professor Betsy DiSalvo, as well as colleagues in the College of Design and School of Public Policy. The class culminated in a four-week-long project on a community-based issue, where students interviewed community stakeholders on the problem, refined design based on their input, and rapidly prototyped a solution.
Zegura generates projects by working with partners she has cultivated over her years teaching Computing for Good. Students can also propose their own project within a sustainable community category. Some of the current projects are:
- Working with the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council’s rain gauge data to make flooding event predictions from the Westside creek. Students have interviewed the organization to find out what the Westside community wanted to learn from the data, then used their computing skills to process and visualize it.
- Atlanta Legal Aid’s housing division is studying intergenerational wealth transfer, or how real estate is or isn’t being transferred between generations through inheritance. Students mapped the city using Atlanta Legal Aid and Fulton County public data sets to analyze ownership and ways in which property is transferred between families or misplaced by gentrification.
“This is something they can work on that has lasting value, not just as an educational experience,” Zegura said. “There’s a big difference between helping clean up a park for a day or helping an organization think through the long-term impact of flooding or housing on the quality of life.”
Zegura is taking this conversation off campus as well. On Dec. 1, she participated in a roundtable on public interest technology organized by New America at New York City’s Ford Foundation. Participants from a dozen universities were invited to discuss developing public interest technology programs, curricula, internships, fellowships, research projects, and more. The discussion included more than just computer scientists and technologists, but also legal scholars involved in the creation of public interest law. Zegura described it as an “early conversation” about how to better educate students who understand both technology and the use of it in service of public problems. That education might be integral to an undergraduate degree in computer science, or it might result in an interdisciplinary master’s degree.
Whatever direction it takes, Georgia Tech will be at the forefront.