SIGCSE24 B. Aditya Prakash

Workshop Employs Lessons from Epidemics to Enhance Computer Science Classes

Computer science educators will soon gain valuable insights from computational epidemiology courses, like one offered at Georgia Tech. 

B. Aditya Prakash is part of a research group that will host a workshop on how topics from computational epidemiology can enhance computer science classes.

These lessons would produce computer science graduates with improved skills in data science, modeling, simulation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML). 

Because epidemics transcend the sphere of public health, these topics would groom computer scientists versed in issues from social, financial, and political domains. 

The group’s virtual workshop takes place on March 20 at the technical symposium for the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). SIGCSE is one of 38 special interest groups of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). ACM is the world’s largest scientific and educational computing society. 

“We decided to do a tutorial at SIGCSE because we believe that computational epidemiology concepts would be very useful in general computer science courses,” said Prakash, an associate professor in the School of Computational Science and Engineering (CSE). 

“We want to give an introduction to concepts, like what computational epidemiology is, and how topics, such as algorithms and simulations, can be integrated into computer science courses.” 

Prakash kicks off the workshop with an overview of computational epidemiology. He will use examples from his CSE 8803: Data Science for Epidemiology course to introduce basic concepts. 

This overview includes a survey of models used to describe behavior of diseases. Models serve as foundations that run simulations, ultimately testing hypotheses and making predictions regarding disease spread and impact. 

Prakash will explain the different kinds of models used in epidemiology, such as traditional mechanistic models and more recent ML and AI based models.

Prakash’s discussion includes modeling used in recent epidemics like Covid-19, Zika, H1N1 bird flu, and Ebola. He will also cover examples from the 19th and 20th centuries to illustrate how epidemiology has advanced using data science and computation. 

“I strongly believe that data and computation have a very important role to play in the future of epidemiology and public health is computational,” Prakash said. 

“My course and these workshops give that viewpoint, and provide a broad framework of data science and computational thinking that can be useful.”

While humankind has studied disease transmission for millennia, computational epidemiology is a new approach to understanding how diseases can spread throughout communities.  

The Covid-19 pandemic helped bring computational epidemiology to the forefront of public awareness. This exposure has led to greater demand for further application from computer science education. 

Prakash joins Baltazar Espinoza and Natarajan Meghanathan in the workshop presentation. Espinoza is a research assistant professor at the University of Virginia. Meghanathan is a professor at Jackson State University. 

The group is connected through Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology (GPCE). GPCE is a partnership of 13 institutions aimed at advancing computational foundations, engineering principles, and technologies of computational epidemiology. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports GPCE through the Expeditions in Computing program. Prakash himself is principal investigator of other NSF-funded grants in which material from these projects appear in his workshop presentation.

[Related: Researchers to Lead Paradigm Shift in Pandemic Prevention with NSF Grant]

Outreach and broadening participation in computing are tenets of Prakash and GPCE because of how widely epidemics can reach. The SIGCSE workshop is one way that the group employs educational programs to train the next generation of scientists around the globe.

“Algorithms, machine learning, and other topics are fundamental graduate and undergraduate computer science courses nowadays,” Prakash said. 

“Using examples like projects, homework questions, and data sets, we want to show that the topics and ideas from computational epidemiology help students see a future where they apply their computer science education to pressing, real world challenges.”