SAS meets IT in new classes

Students in the College of Arts and Sciences who wanted to learn computing skills used to get directed to the Engineering School’s program, where they would have to compete with students for whom information technology was a native language.

“Students in Arts and Sciences feel it’s not a level playing field for them,” said Cecelia Buchanan, director of a new program, the Computing Certificate in Arts and Sciences. “Just going to the engineering building seems to be a hurdle.”

The new program is helping SAS students cross the campus’ own digital divide.

It’s also helping women cross the sexual divide in computing, which is a male-dominated field. “Both classes are 50 percent female,” said Buchanan.

That’s an early mark of success for the program, which will familiarize students with ways they can use information technology in the arts and sciences. The first offerings began this semester—two first-level classes that introduce students to programming, databases, and how to think algorithmically. What’s unusual about the program is it applies those tech-y skills to arts-and-sciences problems.

The introductory classes are the first in a four-course sequence, completion of which will earn students a certificate in computing.

“We’re not training them to be baby computer scientists, but to have those skills to use in their field,” Buchanan said. “We want to give them an understanding of what’s possible and not possible, so they can communicate with tech people and talk to them about what they need.”

Buchanan cited an example of what’s possible, referring to a study of 99 letters of pardon from 16th-century France. The researchers, she said, used a computer mark-up program to indicate features in the documents that they then used computers to analyze—to find out about life at that time.

“We have a copy of the software and are hoping to have students undertake a similar project—in English,” she said.

In this first semester, 46 students have signed up for the introductory courses, which come in two models. One course, taught by Buchanan, is large-project oriented. That group recently created a Web page about renovations at Bennett Hall. Philosophy, Politics and Economics major Andrea Dorfzaun (C’03) said the class has taught her not only HTML, but programming, what’s inside a computer, and how to deal with Telnet and Unix. “I didn’t really know why things work the way they do [on computers]. It’s getting clearer,” she said.

The other class is a lecture course with smaller projects.

Next semester, the program will add courses that fulfill the second level of the certification. Buchanan is entertaining proposals from SAS faculty and departments on interdisciplinary and field-specific computer-intensive courses. Some departments, like Music and Anthropology, already have such courses that have been approved for the program. Other departments have submitted course proposals under consideration.

“Until we can get a computer-intensive course in every discipline, the program will offer five separate courses that would serve students from a variety of disciplines,” Buchanan said. Classes in textual analysis and archiving, multimedia, Web experiments and surveys, modeling and simulation, and data mining will run in the fall as well as some approved computer-intensive courses in the disciplines.

Buchanan, who is familiar with computer-literacy programs at a number of universities like Cornell, Virginia and Wisconsin, said Penn’s program is different from the others.

“Penn’s program is unique in relation to the places I’m aware of in so far as really trying to combine technology with students’ major,” she said. “It’s not technology for technology’s sake.”

Faculty with ideas for interdisciplinary or field-specific courses that focus on textual analysis and archiving, modeling and simulation, Web experiments and surveys, data mining, and multimedia should contact Buchanan, cbuchana@sas.upenn.edu or 215-898-6341.

Originally published on March 7, 2002