A culture of philanthropy and the history of computing as an agent of change are coming together at the Georgia Tech College of Computing. Technology has been changing the world at a rapid pace for decades, and now a major promise of computer science is to improve the human condition and facilitate the progress of communities and the advancement of societies.
“It’s really an emerging value system for the college, as well as a desire to make a difference personally,” says Santosh Vempala, a distinguished professor in the college’s School of Computer Science. “We would like all faculty and all students to consider the power they have as seasoned or emerging computer scientists to really make changes in the lives of people who struggle to help themselves.”
Computing for Good, or C4G, centers on the use of computing as a platform for improving the human condition. It draws on both the self-focused and altruistic sides of students by presenting computer science as a cutting-edge technological discipline that empowers them to solve problems of personal interest as well as problems that are important to society at large.
Beginning in 2007, some computing faculty created an informal working group to find ways the college might practice the concept and reach out to traditionally under-served groups. The most logical first step, the group believed, was to create a class in which students could work toward answers to significant real-world problems. By spring 2008, the first class was held and about two dozen graduate and undergraduate students formed teams to tackle challenges in public health, society and politics as close as downtown Atlanta and as far away as sub-Saharan Africa.
“They are down on the ground working on a real problem – using technology to help in global health initiatives or to heal a nation coming out of civil conflict — not sitting in a lab at Tech,” says Michael Best, assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing and joint with the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. “Students today want to do work where they can see its impact in real terms.”
The C4G impact has been immediate and real. A list of ongoing projects can be found here.
“The best thing about the class is that the students have the opportunity to do something good and meaningful while they are also getting an education,” Vempala says.
The course is new, but the concept of applying computing to social causes and improving quality of life through computing fits very well into the College’s history and its basic vision: to expand the horizons of computer science students through interdisciplinary education, collaboration, international experience and a focus on human-centered solutions.
“One of the major goals of the program at the College of Computing has been to align our curriculum and our students’ experiences with the reality that computing is increasingly global, human-centered and focused on solving problems,” says Rich DeMillo, former John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing. “Computing for Good combines all those elements and allows students to work for causes they really care about. Passion is crucial to effective learning.”
As of fall semester 2010, the third C4G class has begun with projects involving broad areas across health, sustainability, disaster relief, disability assistance, homelessness and education.
“When students create practical solutions for socially relevant problems, they feel more enthusiastic about and committed to their work because they can actually see the impact of what they are doing,” says Ellen Zegura, chair of the School of Computer Science and C4G professor. “They become socially active citizens of the world through computing.”