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Brown CS Makes Responsible Computer Science An Integral Part Of Its Undergraduate Program

Computer science that benefits humanity, science that’s grounded in an awareness of its societal impact, has long been a Brown CS hallmark. Today, more than forty years after the founding of the department, global concern about the ethical and societal issues surrounding computing is greater than ever. This semester brings a new departmental initiative, Responsible CS, which will place the exploration of those issues broadly at the heart of the Brown CS undergraduate experience. 

In the last few years, the department has started to offer a number of courses that exclusively address the ethical and societal impact of CS. These include Cybersecurity Ethics (new this fall); Data, Ethics and Society; and CS for Social Change. While these courses allow students to explore these subjects in depth, Brown CS felt it was important to cover ethical and societal issues in as many courses as possible and as frequently as possible.

“Computer science doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Professor Ugur Cetintemel. “Having individual courses on these topics can make it look like ethics is just a box to check, and that can sometimes cause students to think they’re 'done' after completing a single course.” Several CS classes have already been incorporating ethical and societal issues in their course material, he explains, and instructors from other classes had expressed an interest in doing so with more institutional support. That’s what led to the creation of the Responsible CS program.

Looking to benefit from the insights of other disciplines, as well as to trigger excitement around these topics across the campus, Brown CS began engaging with relevant campus units that include Philosophy, Science and Technology Studies, and Modern Culture and Media (MCM). Their knowledge is being put to use by a newly-formed group of Undergraduate Teaching Assistants (UTAs), the Ethics Teaching Assistants (ETAs). Under the supervision of Brown CS faculty, the ETAs are working with course staff and graduate students from the partner units to create customized content for each class that examines ethical and societal issues in computer science. 

It’s a pilot, and one whose results will be closely watched, with an eye to expanding the initiative in the semesters to follow.

“The goal,” says Jessica Dai, one of the Head ETAs, “is that Brown CS grads will be thinking about and driving responsible tech wherever their work may take them. We aren't prescribing absolute morality judgments, but hope that the additional questions we raise and context we provide will help lead students to think about ethics in the long term. We're partnering with courses directly, embedding ethics education in technical course content.”

Strong Interest

The first step was to recruit the initial cohort of ETAs, and interest was immediate and strong. Brown CS received more than double the number of applications needed to fill the positions, and eventually chose ten students for the pilot: Lena Cohen, Jessica Dai, Signe Golash, Heila Precel, Andrew Rickert, TzuHwan Seet, Kendrick Tan, Hal Triedman, Stanley Yip, and Rebecca Zuo. Jessica and Stanley are serving as Head ETAs. It’s a multidisciplinary group, with most of the students pursuing or planning to pursue double concentrations in areas such as History, Philosophy, and MCM.

Enthusiasm from faculty members and course staff was equally emphatic, with numerous courses hoping to take part. Professor Jeff Huang says that ethics has always been a component of his classes. “I’m interested,” he explains, “in helping students articulate their own principles for determining the ethical boundaries of the products they design.”

In the end, based on ETA familiarity with the course material, Brown CS chose five classes, prioritizing introductory courses and ones with high enrollment in order to maximize early exposure, number of students affected, and impact. They include the following, with two ETAs assigned per class: CS 15 Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, CS 17 CS: An Integrated Introduction, CS 111 Computing Foundations: Data, CS 130 User Interfaces and User Experience, and CS 147 Deep Learning. The ETAs have been working over the summer with the staff of their assigned courses to create integration plans for the new content. During the semester, the ETAs will continue to play a supporting role, working with course staff to develop, deliver, and grade the content. 

“In CS 15,” says Professor Andries “Andy” van Dam, “over the last few years I’ve had ‘IT in the News’ segments at the beginning of each class, mostly devoted to social impact and issues of our technology. This year we plan to have our assigned ETAs, both former CS 15 TAs, lecture on ethics and social-impact-related topics during these segments.”

Getting Started

Over the summer, the ETAs have been busy. With a focus on three general areas (ethical software development and data analysis, biases and other ethical pitfalls, and using computing for societal good), they’ve been doing the following:

  • Compiling materials that can be used in CS courses as well as other contexts.
  • Planning public lectures and workshops, including guest lectures for some courses. 
  • Developing new content according to the following guidelines:
    • It can be part of lectures and assignments or stand alone as additional material.
    • It must be consistent with the curriculum and culture of the course (for example, a skit in CS 15).

The ETAs identified the following principles to organize the coverage of this material in courses:

  • At least some component of it should be graded.
  • It should be covered as early and as frequently as possible.
  • It should be tied to real-world challenges, not high-level abstractions, as much as possible. 

“My goal,” says Professor Doug Woos, “is to treat ethics as much as possible as part of the core curriculum, rather than as something extra or external that we've bolted on. In particular, I'd love to see students really putting themselves in the shoes of practitioners who are making engineering decisions with social consequences, in the hopes that they’ll understand how those decisions get made, what the pressures are, and how to make ethical choices.”

“I want every CS 17 student to understand,” says Professor John Hughes, “that every program they write (especially those they release to the world) has an impact, and that the extent of the impact may be far from obvious; that every program specification involves subtle choices that have consequences –did my choice of string representation mean that this program is usable only by people who use US English and the associated character sets?– and that even with ethical guidelines, many of the decisions we make in computer science may be very difficult.“ 

Looking Ahead

As the semester progresses, Brown CS will evaluate the pilot’s success and plan the initiative’s future. Goals for the next phase of Responsible CS include: 

  • Engaging more closely with the graduate students and faculty members from partner units and getting them more involved in the initiative 
  • Refining the desired qualifications for ETAs and making them an integral part of the UTA recruiting process
  • Hiring additional ETAs
  • Increasing the number of courses covered by the initiative
  • Defining clear goals and metrics for coverage and success across the various courses and the entire Brown CS curriculum

Professor Daniel Ritchie is eager to see students thinking critically about the ethical issues of deep learning. “My goal,” he says, “is for them to leave the course having developed an 'ethics-first' mindset: that they naturally consider the implications of the models they’re building as they’re building them, rather than as an afterthought.”

“I'm incredibly excited about the mission of this program,” says Stanley Yip, one of the two Head ETAs. “It's of utmost importance, especially now, for computer scientists to have the skills necessary to think critically about ethical choices and answer ethical dilemmas that they will experience throughout their career. Ideally, every student leaves Brown CS with these abilities, regardless of which courses they took.”