Effort pushes computer scientists to consider uses of technology

By John Sullivan
January 08, 2019

This article is from the Winter 2019 issue of EQuad News magazine.

Computer courses usually concentrate on technology, but Princeton researchers are revamping parts of the computer science curriculum to teach students how the technologies they develop will affect society.

“We are teaching people how to design and implement technology that we will not only use but also depend on,” said Nick Feamster, a professor of computer science who is experimenting with adding several ethics modules to the undergraduate computer networking course. “To merely teach the technology, without compelling students to ask questions about the potential ethical implications of the technology, is a problem.”

Feamster added ethics instruction to his networking class in 2017, and he is working with others in the computer science department to add similar material to other courses. The effort emerged from the senior thesis of Jasmine Peled, who graduated with a degree in computer science in 2018. She began the project after taking several courses from Feamster.

“The thesis at first looked at how other people had incorporated ethics into their classes,” said Peled, who now works on computer networks for the U.S. Department of Defense. “We decided to have the thesis focus more specifically on best practices.”

Peled looked at a variety of materials available for teaching ethics to computer scientists. She also interviewed students about ethics and tested teaching methods to see which were most effective.

“We ran six different workshops to test them,” Peled said.

Peled found that in general, students preferred to learn about ethics from computer scientists rather than specialists brought in from outside departments such as philosophy or law. She said the students also responded to a variety of presentation styles, including case studies, lectures, and readings.

Feamster said he has seen growing interest in ethics from computer scientists — professors, students, and practitioners alike. In addition to simply creating new technology, leaders of the field also have to think about the application of the technology. He said the ethics instruction would begin in networking and computer security classes with an eye to expanding to other courses if possible. Feamster and Peled are also seeking to create a template that can be used beyond Princeton.

“We want the material to be modular and scalable,” Feamster said. “We would like to create material that others at other universities can also use in their computer science classes.”