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Engineering's interdisciplinary computing program receives accreditation

Monday, November 18, 2019

LAWRENCE — The interdisciplinary computing program at the University of Kansas School of Engineering has received accreditation — the first program of its kind to be so recognized.

Officials with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET) confirmed that KU’s program, which pairs computer science training with concentrations in other fields, is the first interdisciplinary computing program to receive its stamp of approval.

“It’s the first one of its kind that’s been accredited,” said David Petr, a professor in KU’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science who has led the interdisciplinary computing program in recent years. “It was one of the first to even come into existence.”

Accreditation, he said, “is just a confirmation we’ve put together a very solid degree.”

“I’m very excited about all the opportunities the program gives students to explore their interdisciplinary interests while gaining a strong computing foundation,” said Suzanne Shontz, an associate professor in EECS  who is slated to become director of the program next fall.

EECS has offered a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary computing since 2011. Students in the program pick a field of concentration — astronomy, biology, chemistry, geography, journalism or physics — and marry their studies in those fields to classes in computer science. The program integrates classes from both disciplines.

“The basic idea behind it is that computing is almost always done in a context,” Petr said.

“If you’re doing research, you do computing for the sake of computing, but everybody else does it in a context — health care, business, science, etc. — that’s useful for a purpose. This degree is a recognition of that, identifying areas where computing is especially important.”

The six concentration areas, he said, are fields that are “highly dependent on computational expertise.”

“We’re trying to train people to step into those worlds as the computational expert,” Petr said. “A regular computer science student could do this, but they would have a more difficult time because they don’t have the same training as other people in the field — they won’t have the same basics in biology or chemistry.”

The program allows computer scientists working in other fields to “speak the language” of those fields, Petr said. “You can’t write good software for a problem you don’t understand,” he said.

Students in interdisciplinary computing could complete a double major in computer science and a second field, he said, or major in computer science and minor in the other.

“But in both of those cases, it’s going to take more than four years – and the IC degree is a four-year degree,” he said.

The program has sent graduates on to work and pursue graduate studies in their fields of concentration, but it has also become a proven training ground for computer science students who go on to broader careers in computing.

“We have claimed all along this is not a limiting degree,” Petr said. “If a student graduates with an IC degree with a concentration in physics and pursing physics doesn’t work out for some reason, this degree will prepare students for any computer science job.”

Indeed, he said, roughly half the program’s graduates “have gotten computer science jobs that any computer science student could get.”

Seventeen students have graduated from the program during its history, Petr said. More than two dozen students are now enrolled.

Such programs are relatively rare. Stanford University in California started a similar degree program in 2014, but it is no longer offered there.

ABET accredits college and university programs in the disciplines of applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. KU officials hope that accreditation will help them sell interdisciplinary computing to prospective students.

“I think we’re trying to do a better job of saying we’ve got something special here,” Petr said. Accreditation “is a bit of a comfort for students who are considering entering the program. It was kind of experimental, but now it’s come into the realm of being accredited. It’s something we can tell prospective students.”

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