Computing center connects CMU, Microsoft
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Jeannette Wing got angry with a friend recently when he advised his child to major in physics in college instead of computer science.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Jeannette M. Wing, President's Professor of Computer Science, in her office at Carnegie Mellon Univeristy.
Click photo for larger image.
Physics is exciting, he suggested, while computer science is mostly "clerical" computer programming.
Nothing could be further from the truth, said the impassioned Dr. Wing, head of Carnegie Mellon University's world-class computer science department.
The chance to correct that misimpression is one reason she is happy that Microsoft announced yesterday that it is giving Carnegie Mellon $1.5 million over the next three years to establish the Microsoft Carnegie Mellon Center for Computational Thinking.
The center will have two pragmatic goals, Dr. Wing said: to promote new solutions to specific problems like protecting privacy by bringing together the talents of people from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, business and industry; and to improve the understanding of students in grades K-12 of how computers work and why they are important in virtually every aspect of daily life.
The center also will have a broader mission, she said -- giving people a basic understanding of how problems can be analyzed and solved by computers, and getting them to understand the marriage between human ingenuity and sheer power of computational methods.
"Increasingly, scientists and researchers rely on computer science to enable them to sift through massive amounts of data and find breakthroughs that could provide new insights into the human body, the earth we live on and even the universe," said Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research senior vice president and a former Carnegie Mellon professor. "We are eager to explore this exciting new area of research with Carnegie Mellon."
Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon plan to hold annual "Mindswaps" at the center, at which company and university scientists will share their research and generate ideas on how to solve emerging problems.
Those will lead to various "probes" that will gather diverse groups of thinkers to tackle such issues as privacy, embedded medical devices and e-commerce, Dr. Wing said.
The center also will develop programs to promote the value of computational thinking among students and their teachers, starting with a program this summer called "Computer Science for All."
For Dr. Wing, computational thinking is almost a philosophy of life.
When computer scientists look at a problem, they create "abstractions" known as algorithms that tell the computer how to sort data, detect patterns and come up with solutions.
In some cases, the algorithms make it possible to solve problems that human beings could never solve on their own, or that would take them far too long to finish.
One good example, she said, is the famous "shotgun algorithm" that made it possible to efficiently put together the sequence of the human genome. "Had that not come about, we probably would still be sequencing the human genome," she said.
On a more mundane level, scientists have used algorithms to design aluminum cans to use as little metal as possible and still handle the pressure of their liquid contents.
Computer programs are also being used to detect trends in huge amounts of data, she said.
"What scientists are looking for is patterns. Looking at grocery store receipts, you can detect whether there's a flu epidemic by what people are buying; by looking at charge card patterns, you can detect fraud."
At its best, creating these algorithms is a long way from a dry, mechanical exercise.
Just as a novelist brings her imagination to the task of typing a manuscript, a computer science researcher uses ingenuity and insight in writing programming code, she said.
"I think the future of all sciences and engineering rests on the power of computing," Dr. Wing said, "and I think scientists and engineers understand that they can actually gain new knowledge through computers."
In the area of education, she hopes the center will not only encourage more students to become interested in computer science, but even if they don't study the field, to better understand the parallels between the way humans solve problems and the methods computers use.
In one example she likes to use, she says that when a student figures out what to put in his backpack for school each day, he is mimicking the computer programs known as "fetch" and "cache," which are used to assemble the data needed to tackle a particular problem and transport it from one spot to another.
When a person gives someone directions to his house, she said, he also imitates computer programs by concentrating on what is most important -- the main roads, turns and landmarks -- and leaving out all the extraneous details along the route.
Every good computer program, she said, has as much to do with what information to ignore as it does with what information to concentrate on.
Despite all the evidence of how important computers are becoming, there actually has been a decline in the number of college students majoring in computer science.
"There are many reasons for this," Dr. Wing said. "One is outsourcing. One is parents. There's this perception there aren't jobs, but there are jobs -- in fact there's a shortage of qualified people. There's this misperception that computer science is just programming and in that sense is just clerical."
One day, she would like to see parents advise their children to study computer science because "you can go into computing and do anything."
"My bias is that you would have an advantage over others. Because of my argument that computers are going to become pervasive, if you go into medical school or business school or law school, you will have an edge over your friends if you've been a computer science major."
First Published March 27, 2007 12:00 am