Brown CS Blog

At the Intersection: Curriculum: Thinking About Society


Written By: Ajula Van Ness-Otunnu, MET H.S. Intern 

At the Intersection is a three-part series of articles focused on how the intersection between social change and computer science through Brown’s curriculum, community engagement and career tracks, and student advocacy gives students the opportunities to understand and practice humanitarian work in their CS education.

Brown University’s Department of Computer Science has made supporting young innovators who sincerely contribute to their communities a priority. At the intersection of social change and computer science, the Brown CS concentration produces academically well-rounded students, prepared for making a positive social impact by way of their education.  

“Technology is a powerful tool that can impact entire societies and that power requires awareness,” says Department Chair  Ugur Cetintemel.

This mission is supported by the curriculum to incorporate an emphasis on doing ethical work in the CS field revolving around social change.The curriculum is being reshaped to reflect an ethical and social impact mission with courses such as CS for Social Change, taught by Ugur.

This course was developed by Ugur in collaboration with the CS for Social Change student group.  This group, founded in spring 2018, engages in conversation around interdisciplinary CS work focused on societal impact and empowering students to start their own social change initiatives by partnering with nonprofits and guest speakers such as academic and cultural writer: Moira Weigel.

Students in this class are currently designing a browser extension for online creators to report and classify harassment as one of many projects focused on ethical social impact work. The course will be next be offered in Spring 2019. According to Ugur, this level of intentionality is necessary in order to have an inclusive and diverse department since the study of CS does not always naturally lend itself to humanitarian work. “In our curriculum we address the technological services that are being developed have consequences. One of the reasons for developing this course is to get CS students to engage with these nonprofit organizations that could be a possibility for their future. Making students aware of how technology can be misused and the ethical issues are core parts of our curriculum,” he adds.

Ugur believes that the present holds powerfully persuasive developing technology that must be understood and repurposed for the greater wellbeing of society rather than the profitization of private companies. “I think it is important for us to encourage our students to think about society as a whole, especially in underprivileged communities, when using technology to improve people’s lives,” says Ugur. “We need to produce students who approach their work with heightened sensitivity and urgency involving the importance of these issues to benefit society, starting with their local communities.” As a liberal arts university invested in the humanities, Brown CS equips its students with the tools to produce meaningful work that strives for social justice and equality. This socially conscious environment is what influenced current student, Arthur Borem ‘20, choose to concentrate in CS at Brown. “Being able to apply computer science to helping my peers and aiding the communities I inhabit informed my decision to choose CS,” says Arthur.  

The department’s recently developed concentration track, Computer Science-Engaged Scholars Program (CS-ESP), allows for CS students to engage in community outreach by way of the Swearer Center. The Swearer Center connects the Brown students, faculty and staff to community partners, engaged scholarship, and social innovation. Select students can apply for the new CS-ESP concentration, which supplements their CS courses with community outreach through internships and projects under the advising of The Swearer Center and Ugur. The program includes a series of courses for students to choose from: CS for Social Change; Data, Ethics, and Society; Race and Gender in the Scientific Community; and Computers, Freedom and Privacy: Current Topics in Law and Policy. There is also a required summer practicum, engaged capstone, and reflection seminar course taught by Professor Allen S. Hance, Jorie M. Ketten, and Lynsey Ford.  The Engaged Scholars Program gives students firsthand experience with community engagement while applying their CS training to design solutions for specific issues. Ugur exemplifies this approach when he says: “Designing solutions after understanding what communities really need is the only effective use of resources and time to make improvements. That close communication with the users is an essential and necessary component in computer science rather than designing in isolation.” The program uses multidisciplinary work to find where CS and positive social impact work intersects.

For the next article in this series: Community Engagement & Careers in CS Social Impact.