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SISTA Offers First Classes, Attracts a Range of Disciplines
The School of Information Sciences, Technology and Arts was introduced last year with an academic and research focus intended to train students in a broad range of disciplines in the art of computational thinking.
Commonalities among how stage designers, graphic artists, business executives and biologists use computational approaches are becoming increasingly obvious.
Yet training in computational thinking and problem solving is not always part of university-level study for disciplines outside of computer science.
Hence the creation of the School of Information: Science, Technology and Arts, or SISTA, at the University of Arizona.
"Even where computing itself is not essential, thinking about problems from a computational perspective is valuable," said Paul Cohen, SISTA's director and computer science department head.
The school's faculty has introduced its first suite of classes – offerings that are still open for registration – this fall with more additions slated to begin during the spring semester.
Although SISTA's administration is housed with the UA's computer science department, the school is not designed only for those within the discipline.
Students already registered for the courses are studying mathematics, English, business, geosciences, psychology, studio art, German studies, regional development, linguistics, sociology and other disciplines.
"Computing means more than building or programming computers," Cohen said. " These days it means solving problems in an algorithmic way, or thinking about problems and their solutions as if a computer will implement the solutions."
Programming languages, statistics, probability theory, ethics, logic and mathematics are among the areas of focus for the new SISTA courses.
The courses were developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort led by the SISTA team, which received a $800,000 National Science Foundation grant for that purpose.
One such course being taught by Kelland Thomas, a UA associate professor in the School of Music, is "Computing and the Arts," a survey course designed to give students a broad understanding of ways computing has been and is being used across artistic disciplines.
"Computing is more or less ubiquitous, so students who have a strong understanding of computational applications can apply that to any discipline they're interested in pursuing," said Thomas, whose course will focus on music, visual arts, sculpture, theater, poetry and other forms.
"What is the balance between art as self expression and art as engaging our technological society? We have lots of artists who use computers to make music and pictures and Web-based art, bypassing the gallery system all together," he added.
Thomas gave the example of Sol LeWitt, a 20th century American artist who used computer programs to develop designs and structures that would then be modeled by craftsmen.
"Artists have always been interested in what was part of their society and in new technology," Thomas said. "Unexpected results can happen."
Another course, "Ethics in the Digital World," will explore issues related to privacy, copyright and intellectual property within the context of Web-based communication.
"My objective is to make my students wiser, more enlightened and better citizens," said Suzanne Weisband, an associate professor of management information systems in the UA's Eller College of Management. "That means making better choices or at least knowing how your choices are being influenced."
Weisband, who has taught an ethics course at Eller for years, said her priority has been helping students understand the effects and challenges of living in a digital, global society.
That said, the course covers issues related to intellectual property, privacy, copyright infringement, creative commons, personal identity and more.
"There are no right or wrongs; there are a lot of grays," she said. "It's up to us to know that there are different ways of looking at the problem."
Other courses include "Machine Learning" to be taught by Ian Fasel, an assistant research professor of computer science, and "Computational Thinking and Doing" with Lester I. McCann, a senior lecturer in computer science, and Suzanne Westbrook, SISTA's associate director.
Also, Cohen is teaching "Introduction to the Great Ideas of the Information Age," the school's introductory course, which has been designed to give students a fundamental understanding of interdisciplinary work.
He expects to introduce a course next semester to train on research methods, understanding and representing data and also evidence-based reasoning.
"This perspective is valuable, and it gets back to why SISTA exists," Cohen said.
The school was founded as part of the UA's Transformation Plan. SISTA faculty intend to eventually add an undergraduate minor and graduate degree to the offerings, which currently consists of bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees.
Its collaborative nature also calls for a interdisciplinary approach, both in research and in teaching.
"We've had some exciting successes, even though we are less than a year old," Cohen said.
"When a student leaves SISTA, he or she will be able to walk into a biology lab or a musician's studio and understand what's going on from a computational perspective," he added. "This is what researchers all over campus tell us they want, so it is what SISTA will do."