Social Challenges & Computer Science

In a previous post, I discussed some of my experiences and observations related to the introduction of Community-Engaged Scholarship to the School of Computer Science’s CIS3750 classroom. As part of that post, I indicated that most of the community-based projects the students have developed had a strong focus on food issues. More specifically, the students were challenged to address food insecurity and food waste at a local level. Interestingly, whenever I’ve chatted about these activities at conferences and community events, I have typically received one of two reactions: wait, didn’t you say you taught computer science? or it’s amazing that the students are doing something to help their community, but I never would have thought computer science students would care about something like this. 

On the surface, computer science and food insecurity are not obvious bedfellows, but for the past 4+ years, I’ve used the social challenges of food insecurity, food waste, and food distribution to frame the pedagogical outcomes of most of my classes. In this post, I’m going to provide an overview of the food-related projects that students have worked on in CIS3750, CIS4900, and CIS4910, and then I’m going to discuss why I think the inclusion of broad social challenges are important to students in general, and computer science students in particular.

Food Related CIS3750, CIS4900, and CIS4910 Projects
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My introduction to food insecurity didn’t come from lessons in a course I studied in my undergraduate or graduate training. Like many things in my life, I sort of randomly and blindly stumbled into it. As mentioned in my previous post, I was introduced to Linda Hawkins, Director of the Community-Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University of Guelph in early 2012. During our first meeting, she told me and my friend Danny Williamson about the challenges faced by families in Guelph due to food insecurity. Appalled by the statistics, we both felt the need to get involved. And as we learned more and more about the challenges, it became clear to the both of us that this was a challenge that students in the School of Computer Science could potentially explore.

Not knowing how this would work, I introduced a semester-long project called Farm To Fork to the students in my third-year classroom (CIS3750). I was nervous about introducing the project, unsure of how the students would respond to this type of a challenge when most were likely expecting to build a video game. Fortunately, my fears were quickly assuaged as the students demonstrated their ability to not only take on the challenge but to go above and beyond to develop a system that has sparked interest around the globe. Beyond this, a full third of the students enrolled in CIS3750 decided to continue working on the project in subsequent semesters – either through our independent study courses (i.e. CIS4900, and CIS4910), or as undergraduate research assistants, or on a volunteer basis. Students continue to work on the project, building on previous success to provide a tool that can be used by any organization in any city. This also includes a mobile application that will remind donors of community needs whenever they are in proximity to a grocery store or market.

With the success of the Farm To Fork project in mind, I decided to explore the use of community-engaged scholarship the following year. In that case, the students were presented with an educational based project that would connect community expertise with elementary and high school curricula. While the class once again accepted the non-video-game challenge, the project never moved beyond the classroom. I believe that this was partially related to the fact that so many of the students were off on co-op semesters immediately following the course, but I also think that the broad social challenge wasn’t nearly as interesting to the students as the issue of food insecurity.

Since then, students have been challenged to develop web and mobile solutions for Transition Guelph, the Guelph Community Health Centre, Meal Exchange, the Seed Community Food Hub, and the Agricultural Research & Extension Trust (ARET) of Malawi.

For Transition Guelph, students in the 2014 CIS3750 class worked to develop web and mobile applications that would organize volunteers to harvest excess crops from farmers and from neighbourhood fruit trees, thereby reducing food waste and providing the local food bank and food pantries with a source of fresh food. In the same year, students also partnered with the Guelph Community Health Centre to develop a new web and mobile portal for the Garden Fresh Box campaign. The goal of the campaign was to provide residents of Guelph easy on-line access to fresh local produce (available at lower prices than one would find at the grocery store), leading to increased access and availability for families who couldn’t afford the food otherwise.

In 2015 students began working with Meal Exchange on the Trick Or Eat Campaign. Specifically, they were tasked with building a web portal and mobile application that would allow Meal Exchange to more readily manage the thousands of student volunteers taking part in the annual event. The project was a huge success, and students have continued to build the program over the past several semesters. The prototype was recently tested during the 2016 Trick Or Eat Campaign at the University of Guelph and based on findings from that night, we are aiming to have a final product developed for full testing at the University of Guelph’s Trick Or Eat event in October 2017, with a nationwide launch in October 2018.

This year the class was divided into two groups. The first worked with the Seed Community Food Hub to help develop an internal tool to help manage the Seed POD and Garden Fresh Box programs. Working with Tom Armitage, the students were tasked with building a system that would simplify much of his weekly work sourcing and pricing the best local produce for inclusion in the Garden Fresh Box. The second half of the class worked to develop tools that would allow ARET to begin transitioning farmers off of tobacco production to other cash crops, while also addressing the severe levels of food insecurity faced in the country. This coming January, my graduate student Corey Alexander will be leaving for a 6-month volunteer placement at ARET to build on the work that the students in CIS3750 started.

But why are these challenges important to the students in general, and particularly those enrolled in CIS3750, CIS4900, and CIS4910? Beyond the pedagogical outcomes I described in my previous post, I believe there are broader reasons for bringing social challenges into the classroom.

Why Social Challenges In The Classroom?

beginners-challenge-1Social challenges are not the domain of a single discipline. That is, social challenges are complex issues that span public health, the humanities and social sciences, the arts, and the biological, environmental and physical sciences. More than that, they almost always have some policy related component, and indirectly or directly affect everyone. With this in mind, it is highly unlikely that one particular discipline will be able to solve any challenge completely. Social challenges are not the purview of a single domain, so we can’t expect that their solutions will be borne from the contributions of one single discipline.

Of course, higher education is more often than not taught in a siloed fashion. Undergraduate students studying discipline X are likely spending most of their academic conversations with students from discipline X. This isn’t a bad thing, as the siloed approach is meant to focus and hone the skills of the students within their discipline of choosing. However, it can and often has the drawback that students never consider other ways of knowing the world. This is the geographical equivalent of having the opportunity to travel the world to explore and understand different cultures and different points of view, but opting to stay home in a place that is known and comfortable.

And we can’t expect the next generation of researchers and citizens to meaningfully solve anything if we don’t first provide them space to

  1. understand and explore the complexities of our biggest challenges in a safe setting that allows for experimentation and failure, and
  2. develop the skills to communicate effectively within and between teams composed of seemingly unrelated disciplines.

That is, we need to provide students the means and skills to travel the broader academic world. Building curricula that demands students achieve learning outcomes of a particular course while applying their knowledge and discipline-specific skills to a real-world broad social challenge is essential to achieving 1 and 2 above. Incorporating community partners, and introducing topics that sit outside the particulars of a course provides a space for students to begin exploring these challenges while building real-world skills.

Beyond this, I believe it’s important not only for educators to provide discipline-specific knowledge but to encourage and foster our students’ sense of civic-mindedness and engagement. Being a contributing member of society is more than just getting up for the 9 to 5 job. By initiating students with broad social challenges, we ask them to begin considering the world outside of the academic bubble that we too often find ourselves. In my case, it also provides me the opportunity to challenge computer science students to consider how their skills might be used beyond a Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or Amazon job.

Social challenges span multiple disciplines and provide the space for students to think outside of their domain while encouraging interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teamwork. It may not be right for every course, but I believe that presenting a social challenge such as food insecurity or food waste to computer science students has paid off.

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