Demystifying Comp-Sci

Computers are everywhere, but the field of computer science? To many people, it’s a complex realm best left to a subculture of genius geeks.

Professor Michael L. Littman thinks otherwise.

Littman, chair of the computer science department in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick, wants to see the work of computer scientists embraced by everyone, and he is doing something about it.

Insights into Computer Science

“How is it that computers accomplish these interesting things?” Littman asks rhetorically.

To most people, it’s just magic. Though people know about the inner workings of other fields, such as law and medicine, Littman says, “Nobody knows what academic computer science is.”

With that in mind, Littman developed “Great Insights in Computer Science,” a course targeted at nonmajors. Though it’s not a programming course, students do learn to write short programs, using a language called Scratch, and they come away from the class with a far better understanding of key concepts behind computing, such as binary arithmetic, machine languages, algorithms, and recursion. Now others in his department are teaching the course, and many more students are thinking of comp-sci as a field whose secrets are accessible to them.

Students praise Littman for his enthusiasm and his clarity in tackling complex subject matter. “Things really stuck with me, and I still pick up the course book from time to time,” says Gabriel Nieves, who graduated in 2007 with a computer science degree.

Want to glean a few insights into computers? In this video, Littman uses dominoes to demonstrate how logic gates operate.

Programming Household Gadgets

In fact, Littman thinks the general populace can do more than just understand how computers work. In the spring of 2010, Littman taught a new course, “Programming for the Masses.” An honors seminar, the course was based on a simple premise: Programming should be an everyday skill.

Out of that class, a spinoff research project emerged to try to make it possible—and, perhaps more importantly, very easy—to program coffee makers, fans, alarm clocks, lights, and other devices not typically viewed as programmable. The project’s ultimate goal? To develop an easy-to-learn programming language common to all sorts of gadgets, from a pencil sharpener to a living room CD player. (“Apps for apps,” as in applications for appliances, might be the motto.) You want your fan to turn off a half-hour after you turn your lights off at night? Why not? You’d just program it.

This research is perpetuated though motivation, creative thinking, and collaboration, which is exactly the kind of environment Professor Littman fosters in his group.

Sophomore Sameen Jalal, computer science major

And the project continues, now with a mix of computer science Ph.D. students, comp-sci majors, and others, including a Rutgers engineering student and a high school student who participated in the New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology.

For sophomore Phillip Quiza, who is majoring in both computer science and electrical and computer engineering, the project gives him outside-the-classroom exposure to a research project. “It’s the place where I can get creative with both hardware and software and build something different and new,” he says. “I’ve gone to and spoken at a conference, contributed to a paper that we are writing, and helped with constructing a user study that’s still in the works. This experience has given me something valuable that can’t be found in a classroom.”