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NSF awards $800,000 for computer science, communication project

11/18/2009

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded an $800,000 grant for a collaborative research project at Miami University. The three-year project will create a national model for increasing the computational thinking and communication abilities of computer science and software engineering students by integrating communication instruction and activities throughout the curriculum.

“Collaborative Research: Incorporating Communication Outcomes into the Computer Science Curriculum” is led by Janet Burge, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering (CSE), Gerald Gannod, associate professor of CSE, and Paul Anderson, director of the Howe Center for Writing Excellence. They will work in collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University: Mladen Vouk, chair of the computer science department, and Michael Carter, associate dean of the graduate school and director of the Campus Writing and Speaking Program. Miami’s share is about $450,000 for the project.

The project will show universities how to design curricula that significantly improve students’ communication skills, said Burge. “Software developers need excellent writing and speaking skills to communicate effectively with clients and each other,” she explained. “That is why communication should be taught together with technical material, not as a separate topic outside their field.”

Integration of communication into computer science courses will enhance rather than replace the learning of technical content, according to Anderson. “Recent research shows that the more writing students do, the greater their mastery of course material,” he said.

The project will generate a model curriculum and syllabi for computer science and software engineering programs, comprehensive support materials, demonstration and evaluation at two institutions with different academic profiles (Miami and NCSU) and dissemination of results nationwide.

A key feature of this project is its involvement of industry throughout the three years, explained Gannod. Leaders in the software profession will help define learning outcomes, develop teaching materials and evaluate the results of pilot testing.

The project is funded through the NSF’s CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education (CPATH) program, part of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. The CPATH program challenges institutions to “transform undergraduate computing education on a national scale to meet the challenges and opportunities of a world where computing is essential to U.S. leadership and economic competitiveness across all sectors of society.”

This project builds upon a Software Communication Chautauqua organized in summer 2008 by Burge and Anderson, with colleagues Charles Wallace, associate professor of computer science, and Marika Siegel, assistant professor of rhetoric and communication, at Michigan Technological University. The Chautauqua brought together educators and industry representatives to discuss how communication could and should be integrated into the software engineering curriculum. The international workshop was funded by a Community Building grant from the NSF CPATH program.

In other collaborations a team of five computer science and software engineering faculty recently received a $5,000 department development grant for “Communication Coming Into the Capstone” from the Howe Writing Center to integrate writing, speaking and reading assignments in a series of required courses. The team includes Burge, Doug Troy, William Brinkman, Norman Krumpe and Alton Sanders.

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