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Educating scientists in computing

  Dee Ann Rexroat  

“The skills we teach our students, especially problem solving, analysis, creative design, and communication skills, serve them well in whatever area they choose to pursue.” Tony deLaubenfels, professor

Computer technology was developing with unprecedented speed 20 years ago when Cornell College moved to add it as its first new discipline in more than six decades. The computer science program was approved in 1982, graduated its first majors in 1983, and in 1984 became an academic department.

Few technologies have so quickly become so pervasive. Few have so profoundly changed science, business and industry, and government. Because of this, some understanding of the potential and limitations of computing is essential to anyone who wishes to understand modern society.

“The skills we teach our students, especially problem solving, analysis, creative design, and communication skills, serve them well in whatever area they choose to pursue,” says Professor Tony deLaubenfels. “We tell students that with a major in computer science, they can do anything anyone else in another department can do—and then some.”

The mathematics department offered Cornell’s first courses in computer technology in 1971 and continued to teach them until the computer science department was in place. DeLaubenfels was hired in 1983 in mathematics and computer science. The first full-time appointment came in 1985, a position held since 1989 by Leon Tabak. A second full-time faculty position was added in 2003 and filled by Rhodes scholar Andy Wildenberg.

Computer science and its laboratory are located in Law Hall Technology Center, equipped with “smart” classrooms loaded with multimedia technology.

More than machines

Computing is open to a wealth of interdisciplinary pursuits in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Two-thirds of the department’s students have a second major, often mathematics, economics and business, or a natural science.

Cornell’s department emphasizes teamwork using effective communications to define problems and solutions. Students learn how to divide a complex problem into pieces of manageable size, to organize and relate the pieces of information that describe the problem, and to order the steps of the solution.

“Computer science is a discipline for solving problems, not just a study of machines and software,” says Tabak. “For us, computers and programming languages are means to an end. Our students practice describing problems and their solutions concisely, objectively, and unambiguously. We offer not a final credential, but habits of learning and reasoning that our alumni apply in diverse careers.”

Because of Cornell’s One-Course-At-ATime academic calendar, students of computer science receive immediate feedback. “Our students have to explain what they’re doing all the time,” says deLaubenfels. “At a larger school they might bring a sheaf of paper a week later. Here, we hand out software and at the end of the hour we see their progress. Students often stand up in front of the class and walk them through their work.”

Computer science majors often gain practical experience working on campus for the Webteam or the Information Technology Office, benefiting both the students and the college. The computer science faculty also say they are seeing an increasing number of entrepreneurial students such as Derek Brooks ’03, who built a Website on grind sports shoes that was discovered by the BBC, which interviewed him.

Last fall the department sent three students to compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest. The Cornell team—the RAMs—finished 80th out of 181 teams, edging out both teams from Coe College.

Senior Laura Casperson is interning with a research team at Washington University in St. Louis this summer, programming a robot that takes photographs.

“I started out majoring in computer science to placate my father, but after a few programming classes I found that, not only was I pretty good at it, I actually enjoyed it,” Casperson says. “The faculty here are awesome—Tony’s not only a great adviser but an awesome professor, Leon knows all the obscure computer science facts there are to know, and, well, since I helped hire Andy, he’s obviously fabulous.”

Computer Science Faculty

Tony deLaubenfels chairs Cornell’s Student Life Committee and was director of Academic Computing for seven years. His teaching and research interests are computer networks, client-server systems, databases, parallel programming, and numerical analysis. He holds an MS from the University of Iowa.

Leon Tabak’s teaching specialty is computer graphics. He works with the College Board through its Advanced Placement Program, conducting workshops with high school computer science teachers throughout the upper Midwest. A marathon runner, Tabak is Cornell’s faculty representative to the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He is active in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers professional society, taking students to visit local companies, universities, laboratories, and to conferences. He has a PhD from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Andy Wildenberg holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, where he played intercollegiate volleyball. His teaching and research interests are bioinformatics, computer vision, distributed and cache-aware algorithms, multimedia/Web-based systems, and object-oriented design.

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