Professor Working to Advance Computing as a Science

Chiefly concerned with understanding how processes work, computation has garnered a reputation for not being a true science. But Richard T. Snodgrass, a UA computer science professor, has received a National Science Foundation grant to work to change that.
Oct. 28, 2009
Richard T. Snodgrass
Richard T. Snodgrass

Computing – a key subject in computer science – sometimes carries a negative connotation and, in some spheres, is not considered to be at the core of science.

Yet the process of computational thinking, which enables people to take highly abstract concepts and pare them down to manageable measurements, is helping improve knowledge about both computer and human behavior.

That very process is universal, and is valued in subjects like physics, biology and chemistry, said Richard T. Snodgrass, a professor in the University of Arizona computer science department.

"Computing has a foundation of scientific achievement, but some people don't think of it as a science," he said.

To elevate the status of computing while also encouraging its study among students – particularly girls and women – in the K-12 and higher education sectors, Snodgrass and internationally-known computer scientist Peter Denning have received a three-year, $800,000 National Science Foundation grant.

"The problem with computer science is that a few people think it equals programming. It's the same as someone thinking that all of mathematics is algebra," said Snodgrass, the principal investigator on the grant. "But that doesn't emphasize the great ideas behind computer science, and that's what we want to bring out in this grant."

The grant, funded by NSF via the Computer and Information Science and Engineering's Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education program, will enable Snodgrass and Denning, a Distinguished Professor and director of the Cebrowski Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, to build and organize the "Field Guide to the Science of Computation."

The guide, in providing a service, will have varying levels, from beginner for young learner, to advanced for graduate students and professionals. It also will provide an organized body of information related to computing, such as theoretical frameworks and models related to automation, communication, evaluation and design, among other topics.

"We're looking across the entire discipline for the great ideas, no matter where we find them," Snodgrass said. "Part of the project is to pull these together, and it is something that hasn't been done before."

"We also want other scientists to realize that it is not just about programming. This is a science," he added.

Computing has become more pervasive, influencing problem solving methods that are both common and highly complex; computational thinking also aids in producing scientific research, requiring researchers to think more critically about their tests and subjects, Snodgrass said.

He noted that the NSF funding came just before the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution endorsing the need to support computer science education at the K-12 level.

The federal nod indicates a commitment to promoting "the profile of computer science as a transforming industry that drives technology innovation and bolsters economic productivity," the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, noted in a statement released this month.

The resolution also designated the week of Dec. 7 as "National Computer Science Education Week."  

Snodgrass, an ACM Fellow, said: "Clearly, this is a national issue and this project fits right into that." 

During the three-year project, Snodgrass will do the data collection while Denning will be responsible for building the Web site where all of the information will reside. The eventual goal is to ensure that the site is open to anyone with an Internet connection. Denning is best known for his pioneering work in computer science during the 1960s, which later enabled Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and other operating systems to function.

Other collaborators on the UA-led project are Hartnell College in California, the ACM's education board, the Computer Science Teachers Association and two companies: LabRats, located in Chicago, which was developed by MacArthur Fellow Shawn Carlson, and Computer Science Unplugged, which provides activities and curriculum to aid in the instruction of science.

Snodgrass and Denning also will work together to create modules that will then be used among middle and high school-aged students and those attending higher education institutions. It also will include lesson plans for educators.

Snodgrass will be working with educators at BASIS Tucson, a local charter school, to test the effectiveness of the offerings. Allison Titcomb, a UA researcher and assistant to the Residence Life director, will develop the materials used to teach and test the BASIS students using the service.

"We want to make sure the educational materials work, and we'll likely involve the students in the process, getting their ideas on how we should do this," Snodgrass said. "We want them to use these resources as much as possible, so we're delighted to be working with the BASIS school."