Monday, March 21, 2011

UIS receives major National Science Foundation grant to study ethics in computer science

The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Illinois Springfield a $183,603 grant over two years to study ethical implications in computer science education.

Researchers will use the grant to explore whether college students can benefit from learning ethics early on in introductory computer science classes. At issue is whether early exposure to ethics not only leads to a better ethical understanding, but improves overall technical skills.

“We believe that if instructors replace some time used for teaching technical skills with lessons on professional ethics, students will score better on assessments of their technical skills,” said Keith Miller, principal investigator and Louise Hartman Schewe and Karl Schewe Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIS. “We anticipate that students’ performances will improve because they will be motivated to study harder.”

UIS Computer Science Instructor Mary Sheila Tracy and Ray Schroeder, Director of UIS’ Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service are part of the project’s research team. The grant will be shared with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researcher Michael Loui, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Ken Urban, a Computer Science and Information Technology faculty member at Parkland College in Champaign; and Barbara Moskal, an expert on assessment, and a faculty member at the Colorado School of Mines.

Miller and the other researchers plan to design a customizable online teaching module for ethics content that can be used by other colleges and universities, who may not have instructors confident about teaching ethics themselves.

“More ethically aware computer professionals can be expected to produce more reliable, safer computer systems that are more appropriate for user needs,” said Miller.

If the study demonstrates the technical worth of ethics education in computer science, there could be a broadly based increase in computer science instructors who incorporate ethics in their teaching. This, in turn, would mean that computer professionals would be more aware of, and better prepared to deal with these issues.

“Introducing ethics earlier puts technical skills into a broader social context, and illustrates that computing has consequences and can be used to good (or ill) effect,” said Miller.

Miller believes offering computer science courses that include explicit ethical content are more likely to be attractive to women and other underrepresented groups. Some research suggests that women are more interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects, and particularly in computer science, when technical details are put into context.

UIS offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, which are designed to teach students the fundamental skills and core theories of computer science that power the rapid technological change in the world today. Both programs are offered in a face-to-face and an online environment.

For more information on the grant, contact Professor Keith Miller at 217/206-7327 or email

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