Design Education for Non-CS Professionals

June 25, 2006

ATLANTA (June 26, 2006)--College of Computing Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs Mark Guzdial, along with second-year Ph.D. student Brian Dorn, recently won an award from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) "Science of Design" program. Guzdial and Dorn’s research project titled Contextualized Design Education for Professionals from Non-Computing Disciplines will receive $137,114 from NSF for the next three years.

As computing becomes more common and valuable, non-CS professionals in many disciplines are teaching themselves to program; but what do these professionals really know about computer science? If people begin to use their programs, should we be concerned with the quality of what these non-CS professionals produce, especially when we don’t know if or how they test their programs? How could we effectively and efficiently teach these professionals about computer science and design without sending them to formal computer science classes? These are the questions that Guzdial and Dorn are addressing in their award-winning grant from the National Science Foundation.

Guzdial and Dorn work within the College’s Interactive and Intelligent Computing (IIC) division, and recently completed a survey of graphics professionals who program but have no formal CS training. Interestingly, these professionals write programs dozens of lines long to control tools like Adobe Photoshop and GIMP. While Guzdial and Dorn found that the professionals' knowledge of computer science was quite sophisticated in that they all use complex, object-based dynamic data structures, their design process was only sophisticated in some ways. For example, they were very careful in testing their programs, yet rarely wrote program code or comments expecting that anyone else would ever read them, even though they all reported borrowing from others' code frequently.
The next steps in Guzdial and Dorn’s new project will be to devise some techniques for teaching these non-CS-programmers about CS and design in the context of their daily work. The two researchers will then test these techniques and compare the resultant learning to that of students in formal CS classes. This comparison will show how close to classroom learning they can get by supporting “on-the-side learning” in the professionals' context. When asked about receiving the award, Mark Guzdial said, “This is my first fully funded NSF grant since 2003, so it’s pretty exciting!”
Read a recent interview with a journalist-programmer by clicking here.