New Competition Wants to Bring Ethics to Undergraduate Computer Science...

Higher Education

New Competition Wants to Bring Ethics to Undergraduate Computer Science Classrooms

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 10, 2018

New Competition Wants to Bring Ethics to Undergraduate Computer Science Classrooms

Much has been said and written about the need to teach ethics in computer science education—especially in light of major controversies such as with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and broader concerns about the intersection of tech companies and politics.

And it appears that the tech industry itself wants to see a wider CS curriculum as well. Thirty-five prominent tech leaders—including higher-ups at Instagram, Microsoft and Lyft—announced on Wednesday that they are supporting a $3.5 million competition, called the “Responsible Computer Science Challenge,” to bring ethics into undergraduate computer science classrooms.

The challenge is led and funded by Mozilla, Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures and Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Here’s how the competition will work: In the first stage, professors can work alone, or team up with graduate students and teaching assistants to submit ideas on how to bring ethics into existing undergraduate computer science classes. That could be anything from having students check each other's’ projects for potential negative impacts, or bringing in teaching assistants from the philosophy department to facilitate conversations (which Harvard University is currently piloting).

The judges, who are a mix of academics, leaders in tech and others, will select winners. Those winners will be announced in April 2019, and they will receive up to $150,000 to work on their ideas.

Then comes the second stage. Judges will pick their favorite ideas from stage one, and give those winners up to an additional $200,000 each. Those winners will be announced in summer 2020. They’ll then have a year to work on their projects.

Yoav Schlesinger, the chief of staff at Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, says the judges are open-minded about what may come their way.

“We’re not being prescriptive about it,” Schlesinger says. “I can imagine that there are numerous creative ideas out there that we haven’t even considered.”

However, he notes that the competition is focused on finding ways to add lessons around ethics into existing computer science courses and curriculums, rather than developing new courses from scratch.

Kathy Pham, a computer scientist and Mozilla Fellow who helped launch the initiative, thinks the competition is timely. The tech industry is “grappling” with recognizing its social responsibility, she says, and the impact of what it builds.

Ethics courses have been around for decades, but Pham says when it comes to computer science majors, these courses are either more one-off or perhaps less integrated into the curriculum. Recently, several universities like Princeton and Harvard have spurred initiatives to think about bringing ethics into computer science courses.

“If you graduate from a computer science program, you really value things like algorithms and data structures and networking,” Pham says. “Ethics should also be one of the core tenets of the computer science program.”

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