Interdisciplinary team of faculty to create new curriculum for responsible computing

Karla Badillo-Urquiola and Katherine Walden

While many computer science programs offer students a single, stand-alone course on ethics, an interdisciplinary team of University of Notre Dame researchers is rethinking that model.

Faculty from the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Engineering are working together to integrate responsible computing instruction across the undergraduate curriculum, to better equip students to think critically and thoughtfully about technology.

The project, “Computing, Culture, and Society: A Community-based, Intersectional Approach to Responsible Computing Across the Curriculum,” is led by Katherine Walden, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of American Studies, and Karla Badillo-Urquiola, the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering.

“In the liberal arts, the questions we ask are about identity, power and representation — and we need to ask those same questions of technology. How is it the product of human choices? How does it impact people? How is it perpetuating existing forms of inequality and creating new ones?” Walden said.

“Technology is bound up in the people who design, deploy and use it. So, when we look at how to teach responsible computing, it’s not just about understanding how the machines and systems work, but being able to put them in context and understand their impact.”

With funding from a 2023 Responsible Computing Challenge award from the Mozilla Foundation, the team is working to reimagine the undergraduate curriculum and pedagogy to be both intentionally interdisciplinary and more inclusive of diverse perspectives.

Core team members include Shreya Kumar, assistant teaching professor of computer science and engineering; Megan Levis, assistant professor of the practice in the Center for Social Concerns and College of Engineering; Patrick Gamez, assistant teaching professor in the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values; and Walter Scheirer, the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Professor Computer Science and Engineering.

In collaboration with the College of Arts and Letters Technology and Digital Studies Programs, the Center for Social Concerns and the Center for Civic Innovation, Walden and Badillo-Urquiola are developing an online portal with open educational resources, creating faculty development resources for the Notre Dame community and redesigning key components of the computing curriculum.

This spring, the team has piloted two newly redesigned courses at the intersection of computing and the liberal arts, both of which incorporate a new focus on ethics, local community partnerships and civic data.

In addition, Walden will offer a newly created course in the fall, called Code in Context: Computing and the Liberal Arts, that will combine a hands-on introduction to basic computing concepts with a critical discussion of the historical, social and cultural dimensions of technology.

“This course offers very concrete ways for our Arts and Letters students who may not self-select into tech and data majors to see that they have a seat at the table and for our computer science students to recognize that those hard skills don’t exist in a silo,” Walden said. “By studying how computing technologies have developed over time, as well as how they work, we’ll be able to consider what kind of technological future we want and how to build it.”

At the same time, the team is examining the types of frameworks they use to teach ethics, with a focus on including more diverse perspectives, particularly those of the Global South.

“Notre Dame is a global institution, and we want to ensure we are looking at ethics from a global point of view and not just a Western perspective,” Badillo-Urquiola said. “Our goal is to create a curriculum and a learning environment that promotes cultural sensitivity and equity across the technology sector and around the world.”

This summer, Badillo-Urquiola and Kumar will pilot a revamped ethics course taught in the College of Engineering at Notre Dame London. This new version of the course will allow engineering students to think about ethics in practical terms, take ownership and view ethics as part of, rather than separate from, engineering, Badillo-Urquiola said.

“To this purpose, the course employs the use of roleplaying and scenario creation and provides space for students to explore technology ethics outside the classroom walls,” she said. “These experiences will help students visualize how the simple decisions they might make as an engineer in industry could have ethical ramifications.”

As part of the project’s goal of globalizing responsible computing education, Badillo-Urquiola will also be partnering with three Mexican universities this fall to host an “International School of Responsible Computing” program in Guadalajara.

Exploring the ethics and greater impact of technology is central to Notre Dame’s mission and to the Catholic social tradition, Walden said.

“As Pope Francis has said, we have to accept that technological products are not neutral. And the decisions we make around technology that seem to be simply practical are actually decisions about the kind of society we want to build,” Walden said. “I can’t think of a better place to examine these decisions than at Notre Dame, where we are called to serve the common good, promote human dignity and stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins.”

Originally published by Notre Dame News at on April 30, 2024.