Seeking to better prepare their students for the changing demands of the new global economy, officials at Georgia Tech (GT) this semester have introduced a totally redesigned framework for earning a computer-science degree.

Dubbed “Threads,” the program shuns a traditional degree in favor of a more personalized approach–one that aims to make every course students enroll in, either inside or outside their major field of study, more relevant to their professional aspirations.

Officials at the school’s nationally recognized College of Computing, where the Threads program launched in late September, say the move is critical in meeting the demands of a changing marketplace. As developing nations such as India and China up the ante for skilled workers in the technology-driven 21st century, project organizers say, the nation’s schools and colleges have a responsibility to ensure that America’s academic talent maintains its competitive edge.

The problem has proved especially vexing for educators in the field of computer science, many of whom have seen their enrollments taper off significantly since the dot-com market collapsed nearly a decade ago, according to GT computer-science professor Charles Isbell.

With the goal of bringing students back into the fold, Isbell and his colleagues within GT’s College of Computing created the Threads program. Already, the school reports student enrollment has risen as much as 20 percent compared with the previous year.

Just what is Threads? According to Isbell, the program was designed by educators as a means of “rethinking” the very idea of computer education.

Rather than spending the first few semesters–or, in some cases, years–fumbling through general elective courses while trying to decide in what direction to take their academic careers, Isbell and his team wanted to provide students with an education focused on relevance–so that every class, from the first day of freshman orientation to graduation, would have some bearing on what students decided in the future.

“We wanted to make it clear to students that certain experiences were important,” he said.

To do that, the college developed a curriculum based on eight sets of broad and horizontally focused skill categories, or “Threads,” that lie within and outside the computing discipline. These are:

  • Computational Modeling–where computing meets and describes the world;
  • Embodiment–where computing meets the world;
  • Foundations–where computing meets itself;
  • Information Internetworks–where computing meets data;
  • Intelligence–where computing meets and models intelligence;
  • Media–where computing meets design;
  • People–where computing meets users; and
  • Platforms–where the practical skills of computing are learned.

Students who enroll in the program are required to choose two threads, each of which contains a different set of courses that can be intertwined to eventually earn a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of computer science.

“We should be thinking from the very beginning about the types of classes [electives] outside of computer science that students should be taking,” explained Isbell.

For instance, if a student has an interest in computing as a tool for monitoring human behavior, then he or she also should be taking general psychology courses or psycho-physics classes, he said. Under the Threads program, both core courses and electives are categorized to offer a better sense of direction and purpose.

Project developers hope the system will equip students with a broader range of skills, thus making them more attractive to future employers.

“Threads represents a tremendous departure from current thinking about computer-science education–historically a vertically oriented curriculum whose goal is the creation of students with a fixed set of skills and knowledge,” said Richard A. DeMillo, the John P. Imlay, Jr., Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. “Computer science as a discipline is an increasingly broad spectrum. Threads gives students the power to select where they want to be in this spectrum and to take ownership of their career trajectories.”

The goal, explained Isbell, “is to put students on the right track to get the kinds of jobs that they want.”

All told, students can choose some 28 different combinations of Threads–this, as opposed to the single degree the college used to award to each of its students, regardless of specialty.

Apart from the eight threads used to map the content of students’ undergraduate work, school officials also have developed a set of “roles” to define how graduates will apply their degrees in the workforce.

Similar to choosing threads, students are asked to pick one of four roles used to provide an identity for their experience:

  • Master Practitioner–expert programmer who possesses the technical skill and experiences to thoroughly design, construct, and validate computer-based systems either alone or as part of a large team;
  • Entrepreneur–creator and leader of new enterprises that bring technology to the public;
  • Innovator–discoverer of new knowledge and constructor of ground-breaking solutions; and
  • Communicator–individual capable of communicating technical information to the technologist and layperson alike.

Flexibility is another key component of the program. Realizing that many students might opt to change the course of their schooling before graduation, Isbell said, officials have left plenty of leeway for students to swap threads before their senior year.

To help students understand the options available to them, the university plans to start a program called Freshman Leap, a required course for incoming freshmen that meets once a week throughout their first semester. Each week, the class will be taught by a new professor specializing in a different thread. It’s the job of faculty members to explain the different learning tracks and help students decide what types of threads they ultimately will pursue, said Isbell.

Faculty members also will work with prospective employers to help them understand the motivation behind the changes.

“It is part of our job as a university to work with the people who hire our graduates and make sure that they know what the different threads mean,” added Isbell.

The program, mentioned in the latest edition of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, The World is Flat, reportedly is gaining the attention of other colleges and universities as well.

“A lot of institutions have come to us with an interest in the program,” acknowledged Isbell.

The College of Computing at Georgia Tech currently enrolls about 800 undergraduates, most of them pursuing a bachelor of science degree in computer science. The Threads platform will serve as the new curriculum for this degree, starting with the 220 first-year students enrolled in the 2006-07 academic year.

Links:

Georgia Tech
http://www.gatech.edu

Threads
http://www.cc.gatech.edu