Georgia Tech (GT) is pioneering a completely new approach to the teaching of computer science that school officials hope will renew interest in a flagging field and better prepare students for the challenges of the 21st-century workplace. Already, the program has resulted in a 20-percent increase in enrollment in its first year of implementation. 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–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: (1) Computational Modeling, where computing meets and describes the world; (2) Embodiment, where computing meets the world; (3) Foundations, where computing meets itself; (4) Information Internetworks, where computing meets data; (5) Intelligence, where computing meets and models intelligence; (6) Media, where computing meets design; (7) People, where computing meets users; and (8) 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 computer science.
“We should be thinking from the very beginning about the types of [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.” 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.
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.
“A lot of institutions have come to us with an interest in the program,” acknowledged Isbell.