counter to show iterations, a pizza maker to construct a list, a lemonade stand
to demonstrate databases. If I was a student, beginning these important four
years, and I was taught programming
via doughnut machines, I would quit
and go do something important. Major
in some field that had an impact. Even
the sterile environment of pure mathematics has me counting and measuring
planets and populations. Sociology and
psychology would have me charting behaviors. Chemistry and physics have me
connected to the environment. Computing as portrayed in the literature has me
running a pet store, playing games, or
eating. That would seem to be it. There
isn’t a textbook out of the 60 I have on
my shelf that makes me see computing
as socially relevant.
And so the message is just not getting out there. Students’ firsthand experience with computers—their music and their phones—is accepted and
reinforced by the image we portray in
school—one of unrelenting banality
and geekdom—and potential computer science students do not see themselves as having a greater impact.
At the University of Buffalo we have
two senior-level courses that require
teams to create real systems for real clients. They are introduced to the wider
community of people with disabilities
and told to make a difference. That’s
it. Those are the instructions. Improve
the quality of life of someone less able
than you. If you can’t figure it out, you
fail. So don’t fail.
A group of students tacked a sign up
at a school for handicapped children
that said “Student Inventors Available
Free. Is there something you need?
Call us.” And they heard from a mother
whose daughter could not use a computer because she had no fine motor skills.
She could move her arms but not her
fingers. So they made her a trackball out
of a basketball, and wrote games that
use the wide swing of her arms as she rotated the basketball. It’s not perfect, but
they were immersed and involved, and
they visited with the family and they delivered a prototype. And no one will ever
convince them that computer science is
not social science, because outside the
world of trivia we feed students in their
freshman year, it certainly is.
Now people in the community call
us. That’s how my students met David,
a textbook out
of the 60 i have
on my shelf that
makes me see
who was 43, suffered a stroke at age 27,
and hadn’t been able to speak since.
He communicated with his nurses by
pointing to a sheet of paper that was
taped to his wheelchair. It had letters,
words, and short phrases, and after
much practice, a nurse or therapist
could almost decipher what he wanted to say. So our students transferred
that sheet of paper to a tablet PC, and
when David touches a word, the computer speaks it. How difficult is that?
Easier than counting doughnuts. The
night they delivered that system, David
called me at home with his new voice
and thanked me. And said he waited 15
years to speak on the phone. And the
pictures I saw later of the event clearly
showed students crying.
Every once in a while, a student will
say “I can’t find a project,” and I tell
them to read the newspaper or consult other news sources. That itself
sounds banal but it’s not: right below the surface of a news item, there
is most likely a problem to be solved.
Find someone or something in trouble, and save it. That’s how we found
the number-one killer of firefighters
on the job: it’s not fire, smoke, or Dalmatian attack; it’s heart attack. And
so now we have a system that monitors vital signs and displays the statistics on a 3D model of a fire scene as
the firefighters traverse it.b
We have remote-controlled wheelchairs, videoconferencing for homebound and hospital-bound children, a
light-and-sound system (the students
call DISCO) that teaches cause-and-
b See http://www.sociallyrelevantcomputing.org
effect to autistic children, and many
more systems constantly evolving. All
of this technology and creative energy
is at our fingertips, but to sample our
craft in the popular literature, you
would think we were cyber pets on one
end, artificial intelligence on the other,
and nothing useful in between.
So back to the textbooks and the
freshman year. In the senior-level courses, you can see the difference between
simply relaying a difficult concept
(teachers know when that lightbulb
goes off in a student’s head) and emotionalizing that concept (that’s a whole
different look behind their eyes, and
probably why teachers become teachers). How do we get that same reaction?
It’s probably as much for me as for
them that I want them to see computing as a craft for the greater good. I have
to teach my students counting, so I will
forego puppies and have them design
a tamperproof voting system. When
they learn two-dimensional arrays it
will be to monitor the flow of pollution
through Lake Erie. Databases? Not fish
in a bowl but it will be drug interactions.
My good friend Devika Subramanian at
Rice University taught me how to use
disaster evacuation planning to teach
optimal paths and routing instead of
using chess. I can’t find any of these in
a textbook that teaches CS1, so I’ll have
to invent them.
I know that writing a textbook is
difficult. But so is teaching, and so is
1. buckley, m. et al. benefits of using socially relevant
projects in computer science and engineering
education. in Proceedings of the Special Interest
Group on Computer Science Education Conference,
2. buckley, m., schindler, k., kershner, h., and alphonce,
c. using socially relevant projects in a capstone design
course in computer engineering. in Proceedings of the
American Society for Engineering Education Annual
Conference, 2004; http://portal.acm.org/citation.
3. nordlinger, n., subramanian, D., and buckley, m.
socially relevant computing. in Proceedings of
the Special Interest Group on Computer Science
Education Conference, 2008; http://www.cs.rice.
4. schindler, k., buckley, m., kershner, h., and alphonce,
c. Partnering with social service organizations to
develop socially relevant projects in computer science
and engineering. in Proceedings of the International
Conference on Engineering Education, 2004; http://
Michael Buckley ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director
of the center for socially relevant computing at the
university of buffalo, ny.
copyright held by author.
30 communicAtionS of the Acm | APriL2009 | voL. 52 | no. 4