Smartphones, smart cars, online dating, Amazon everything. There isn’t an area left in our lives that technology hasn’t dramatically transformed in the last few decades. So perhaps it’s no surprise that colleges and universities nationwide are seeing an explosion of interest in computer science. It’s no different at Tufts, where computer science became the largest major on campus back in 2015. There are now about 625 declared computer science majors at the university, up from 92 in 2005.
But what is different at Tufts is the way the computer science department is meeting this wave of interest in a multidisciplinary way. It doesn’t concentrate solely on what is technologically possible, but also examines the broader implications that could follow from those innovations. “Computer science is inventing and changing the future super-fast, and with lots of positive effects,” said Kathleen Fisher, chair of the department. “But this also has consequences, for things like fake news, and the future of work, and echo chambers—all of these issues that are coming about because of these changes in technology.”
Fisher’s goal for the department is to train a generation of students to think through—and solve—the problems that arise from this digital age. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, look at my cool new tech,’” she said. “It’s, ‘Look at my cool new tech that has this chance to change the world—and I need to make sure that the negative externalities are minimized. How do I do that?’”
Over the last few years, the computer science department has tapped the expertise around the university to offer students a rich array of new classes and degree tracks that target some of the most important issues in the real world: data science, cybersecurity, and robotics, certainly—but also ethics, law, and policy.
One new course, called Ethics for AI, Robotics, and Human Robot Interaction, is taught by Thomas Arnold, a research associate in the Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory at Tufts who is also finishing his PhD in religion at Harvard University. “Even though at the moment computer scientists are kind of on the top of the heap, they need to have some real grasp of what they may be missing,” Arnold said. He encourages his students to think through the potential implications of their work, in a way they might not be used to. “Look at a self-driving car,” he said. “Well, what would happen if two people are in the car and there’s a harassment situation, how does a car handle it?”
Last year, Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life named Assistant Professor of Computer Science Fahad Dogar its first senior fellow for civic technology. He’s designing new classes and projects focusing on how technology affects citizens and society. “There are trade-offs involved in using technology,” Dogar explained. For example, in some cities phone apps now let residents report problems directly to their local government. But innovations like those might also result in fewer people organizing groups of concerned citizens to demand broader action. Dogar plans to again offer a course called Computing for Developing Regions, in which students work to develop innovations to help populations in underdeveloped countries such as Pakistan.
This kind of next-level thinking is “a big shift from the traditional focus of computer science departments,” Fisher admitted, and yet she believes it’s more than worth all the effort. “Part of the excitement that we’re seeing and conveying,” she said, “is that computer science is stretching its wings and taking on a wide range of areas where it can make a big positive difference.”
In Pursuit of Excellence
The computer science department isn’t just pushing boundaries with its diversity of classes—it’s also beating the averages when it comes to inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups. And in a department trying to make a positive difference in the world, faculty and students with a broad range of backgrounds are essential. “When people come from different perspectives, they have different and new things to offer,” said Professor Lenore Cowen. “The more diverse your team is, the more creative your solutions are going to be.”
Today, 28 percent of computer science majors at Tufts are women—compared with a national average of about 18 percent—and the department isn’t stopping there. Last year, it was named a Building, Recruiting, and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) affiliate, and is committed to increasing its diversity and sharing best practices with other member schools. And the School of Engineering has long supported student chapters for groups like the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.
Here are more ways that the Tufts School of Engineering, home to the Computer Science Department, is standing out.
21.3% Percentage of bachelor’s of engineering degrees awarded nationwide to women in 2016-2017
49% Percentage of the Tufts School of Engineering’s class of 2022 who are women
37.7% Percentage of bachelor’s of engineering degrees awarded nationwide to students of color in 2017
45.2% Percentage of Tufts School of Engineering students in the fall of 2018 who were people of color
141 Number of Tufts School of Engineering students in the fall of 2018 who were part of the first generation in their family to attend college, a 50 percent increase from 2014
Shannon Fischer is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Tufts Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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