Gabrielle Allen, director of the school of computer science at the University of Wyoming, says computer science is multidisciplinary
The University of Wyoming is launching a new computer science school. While programs and tracks already exist for the technical and engineering aspects of the field, the new school at UW will bring a new focus to the practical applications of computing. Computers and computer programming have become increasingly important in various academic disciplines. For example, it’s the only way for a communications specialist to analyze the spread of misinformation across millions of Tweets. It’s also the only way to study phenomena like black holes – where the equations are too complex for a human mind. Wyoming Public Radio’s Jeff Victor spoke to the school’s appointed principal, Gabrielle Allen, about his hopes for computer science school and his own journey, using computer programming to be the first to study gravitational waves.
Gabrielle Allen: The School of Computer Science is really in a different area from the curricula and departments that we have. It’s really about the application of computing. Although we are currently incubated within the College of Engineering, it will move in a few years and become an independent school under the Provost. And deal with applications of computer science in all disciplines of the university – so not just in engineering like computer science and electrical and computer engineering. These are important components, but they are kind of the theory of computing. And the idea of the new school is that it sits between disciplines and theoretical subjects – computer science, electrical and computer engineering, applied mathematics and statistics – and really thinks about “How do you advance the use of IT in all disciplines, in all applications?’ And above all, to have courses that prepare all students to be able to use computer science in all their majors for the new careers they are considering these days.
Jeff Victor: So, tell me a bit about yourself, your research interests, and how you came to UW?
GEORGIA: My background is in computational physics. I have an undergraduate degree in mathematics and then did a doctorate. at Cardiff University in Wales in physics, but really on the computing side. My research has always focused on understanding black holes in the universe and in particular what happens when two black holes collide. You may have seen a few years ago, a big announcement, that we were able to show that black holes exist, that gravitational waves exist – and now we have gravitational wave astronomy as a whole new field. But my role in that was to start by trying to understand how you model black holes. You can’t solve them with pen and paper. The equations are too complicated with Einstein’s theory of gravity, so you have to use computers. The equations are very large, very complicated. So in terms of putting them on a computer, naturally that forces you to look at all sorts of things ranging from advanced programming, how do you develop software frameworks around which people can collaborate, how do you handle large of data, how do you visualize the resulting results? Lots of IT topics. So my research has always focused on how you use computer science to solve complex problems in relativistic astrophysics.
JV: Coming back to the school itself, what is your vision of computer science school?
GEORGIA: First of all, it’s not my vision. When President Seidel arrived, he put together these four task forces that included faculty, staff, and students to look at four different areas where the university could do more. A subgroup considered whether it would be beneficial to establish a computer school here. So there was a small group of people watching this and I was part of that team. This group therefore proposed an initial plan in May 2021 for a possible school of computer science. And because it was a very large group, it was really about computing for everyone and not just thinking about computing – which could be considered a very scientific, very technical activity – but about the importance of computing in the humanities, in the social sciences, in the arts, and also how we must make it accessible to everyone at the university. I really appreciate how it was really driven by those values.
It really came from a wide range of people from across the university. We had a lot of feedback from the faculty senate and staff senate, but more importantly, from the student senate on their concerns and needs and that really shaped how the final application was crafted. So I really feel like I’m executing the vision of a large group of people with this.
These are really exciting problems that we’re working on because they’re all high-profile computing problems where you need cross-disciplinary teams. A lot of the things we’re looking at right now are going to involve machine learning and artificial intelligence and if you watch a movie you’ll see how important it is that we think about the ethics of that and what the effect will be on people . So we need to have social scientists on these teams, we need to have people from the humanities and the arts to contribute. These are really interesting problems.
JV: What will it mean for the State of Wyoming to have this school here available as a resource?
GEORGIA: It’s really important because of the effect on economic development and the training we give to students so that they can go out and use computers. Computers and technology are part of everyone’s job. And having those skills is going to make people more successful in those careers. It is also essential. The students who go through the system today will be the ones who build the planes in the future. So we really want to make sure they’re using the best technology and have all the aspects of computing to be able to do that. And in terms of the types of businesses that we see growing in the state. We talk to them and they really want to see more students come out with computer problem solving skills. We know we need to train more computer scientists and electrical engineers.
Also, I think the College of Education has been a fundamental part of the planning group to think about how we train teachers so they can train students so they can really enjoy a first-grade education class because they can already understand how to work with computers, how to program. Having those skills early on than other states is going to be important.