January 2005

Teaching Science at Liberal Arts Institutions

Pioneering in the Field of Psycho-Oncology

Investigating Infections from Multiple Perspectives

Increasing Knowledge About Disease Processes

Research at the Nexus of Clinical and Developmental Psychology

Opening Up the Box

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Bryn Mawr College
A newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Opening Up the Box
By Dorothy Wright

Today, scholars in many disciplines use sophisticated software applications to probe questions and solve problems. For example, an archaeologist might use a Geographic Information System (GIS), a database system that can store and retrieve spatial data, to inventory the artifacts recovered at an excavation site. But if the archaeologist were able to apply programming skills to customize the GIS, she might better be able to probe questions, such as the correlation between specific types of artifacts and their particular locations at the site.

Deepak Kumar  
Deepak Kumar

An innovative new minor in Computational Methods offered at Bryn Mawr will help students integrate programming skills with traditional disciplines. Available for the first time in the 2004-05 academic year, the minor pairs courses in basic computational problem-solving and analysis techniques, taught in the Computer Science Program, with courses in computational-modeling techniques specific to various disciplines across the academic spectrum, including the sciences as well as archaeology, economics, growth and structure of cities, mathematics, sociology and philosophy.

"This is about more than learning how to use existing software," says Associate Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar, who proposed the minor to the College's Curriculum Committee. "Graduates with this minor will have a deep knowledge of programming, so that they can create their own tools to solve research problems in their own disciplines.

"The idea is to help students 'open up the box' on their desktops and fully use its power," Kumar says.

Majors and Minors

For example, a psychology doctoral student investigating the social aspect of computer games recently asked Kumar for assistance in modifying game-playing software to collect her data. "We are happy to help, but we would like to empower students to solve these types of problems themselves," he says.

Traditionally, a minor requires six courses. For the minor in computational methods, four of those courses will be computer-science courses, and the remaining two courses will involve training in methods and tools specific to the student's major. Those courses will count toward both the major and the minor.

About 35 such courses are already offered at Bryn Mawr, including Statistical Methods in Economics and Analysis of Spatial Data Using Geographic Information Systems. A four-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will contribute to the development of five new courses that can be applied to the minor: Bioinformatics, Ecological Modeling, Emergent Systems, Visualization: Art and Science and Geographic Information Systems and Science. Moreover, if a student comes up with a set of courses in a discipline that doesn't fulfill the requirements for the minor, faculty members will consider tailoring the minor to her interests.

New Perspectives

Douglas Blank
Douglas Blank

The proposal for the new minor in Computational Methods was prepared in close cooperation with Douglas Blank, assistant professor of computer science, and George E. Weaver, professor of philosophy.

"The new minor builds on what we have been doing to develop our role as a computer-science program at a liberal-arts college," Blank says. "We see computer science not only as an important endeavor, but also as supporting inquiry in a range of academic disciplines."

For example, the minor offers exciting opportunities for linguistics majors, Weaver says. "Computational linguistics is a recognized subfield of both linguistics and computer science, and the minor provides, in principle, a whole new perspective informed by the development of formal and computational models of language."

George E. Weaver  
George E. Weaver

Weaver says one of the benefits of the new minor in Computational Methods for linguistics majors is that it gives them a range of opportunities that are not ordinarily available to undergraduates in small liberal-arts colleges, such as interdisciplinary projects in robotics, artificial intelligence and automatic translation, as well as traditional linguistics. "For example, a student might wish to develop sophisticated linguistic capability in a robot," he says. "This requires facility with computational linguistics, which involves the manipulation of language according to rules.

"These kinds of opportunities can inspire a student to develop a long-range senior thesis project to which future generations of students can also contribute," Weaver continues. "This is intellectually attractive to Bryn Mawr students."

Natural Fit

Susan A. White
Susan A. White

There is a natural fit between computational methods and the natural sciences. "Chemists of all types use computational methods," says Susan A. White, an associate professor and acting chair of the chemistry department. "In fact, some use purely computational approaches to solve chemical problems. In most areas of chemistry there is a rich interplay between theory and experiment, where we test our understanding using computational models.

"All chemistry students get some exposure to such computational methods in our major courses, and we are delighted that interested students will now be able to pursue computational methods in more detail," White continues. "This will be useful to them whether their interests lie in genomics, structural biology, organic or inorganic chemistry, or laser spectroscopy."

Kumar says the introduction of the new minor is a "first step" toward development of similar cross-disciplinary programs, such as cognitive science and computational linguistics. "Since the inception of the Computer Science Program in 2000," he says, "my goal has been to create a unique program, one that does not have a thousand variations in other schools."


Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.

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