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Informatics at Multiple Scales: Project Summary

In recent decades natural science has come to recognize and study phenomena that recur at multiple scales of space and time. This recognition has allowed fundamental principles to be exhibited in full universality and has helped energize cross-disciplinary work in the sciences. We conjecture that a similar energizing of cross-disciplinary work in the informatics domain can be accomplished by likewise focusing on computational phenomenon occurring at multiple scales. We propose to develop, deploy, disseminate, and assess a curriculum model that is based on this notion.

Seen from a computational perspective, the range of scales is vast. From elementary particles to the planet itself, computation occurs at many levels. This way of organizing computational phenomena across distinct scales is an alternative way of addressing the “principles” approach to computing pedagogy, and we intend to explore and assess the effectiveness of this alternative approach. By encouraging students to see computation operating on many scales, we can deepen their appreciation for computational thinking (CT) across wide variety of disciplines. This can help combat the insular pull of computer science pedagogy that can arise from a narrow focus on code and technology for its own sake. This insularity has become a deterrent to many students.

This project uses the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University to implement a model based on this vision. The College was formed in 2005, bringing together three departments: Communication, Computer Science, and Business Informatics (formerly Information Systems). The model deploys computational thinking in the curriculum at two levels of resolution. All students who have majors in the college (about 1100 students with majors ranging from Journalism to Information Technology) will enroll in a Principles of Informatics course that exposes them to computational thinking at many scales. Majors in Computer Science go beyond this to work through a full curriculum that has been reframed and extended to reference the multiple scales model. The project will fund an “informaticist in residence” program to bring both external (national or international) and internal scholars and artists into the project as consultants. They will provide a set of examples, case studies, and projects for the courses, and help enrich the scholarly foundations of the model.

Intellectual Merit. The chief intellectual merit of this project lies in its formulation of a new model with which to organize the undergraduate computing curriculum in a way that energizes cross-disciplinary connections. Use of the term “informatics” in the United States is still young, and this provides one avenue by which one can establish an intellectually-rich operational definition of that term.

Broader Impact. The broader impact of this project stems from bringing deep ideas and cross- disciplinary opportunities to first-generation and non-traditional students, in both technical and non- technical majors, who may tend to see computing merely as a training discipline. The dissemination of an accessible and appealing curriculum framework, one that motivates such students to apply computational thinking to a wide range of workplace situations, should provide a rich set of resources upon which other metropolitan universities, each with their distinctive sets of cross-disciplinary expertise, may build.