uc davis computer science sts mozilla responsible comptuting

Top (left to right): CS professor Nina Amenta, CS professor Michael Neff, STS assistant professor Gerardo Con Diaz, CS professor Xin Liu. Bottom (left to right): CS professor Prem Devanbu, CS Ph.D. student Gabriel Castillo Cortes and STS professor and chair Colin Milburn. Photos: Watson Lu, Reeta Asmai, Lucy Knowles/UC Davis.

May 21, 2019

By Noah Pflueger-Peters

A team of faculty members from the Departments of Computer Science (CS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) was named an inaugural winner of the Mozilla Responsible Computer Science Challenge. The challenge, which awarded a total of $2.4 million to 17 proposals, promotes integrating ethics and holistic thinking into computer science education.

The UC Davis project, led by CS professors Nina Amenta and Xin Liu and STS assistant professor Gerardo Con Díaz, centers around computer science’s two-quarter senior capstone course, where students form teams to create software that solves real-world problems from clients in industry. The redesigned course will give students a background in social sciences and humanities as they develop their project to prepare them to solve the industry’s biggest challenges with conscientious decision-making.

To do this, students will learn about teamwork, including the importance of inclusive, open environments on their teams, along with communication skills to both manage conflict and present themselves professionally to clients. The course will also give them a background in technological history, law and ethics that will help them understand the role of their software in society

“We need developers who know that the technologies they’re making don’t exist in isolation,” said Díaz. “They are embedded in social contexts, and more that we can foresee the impacts, the better we can incorporate these technologies into the world.”

The proposal is a product of a long-standing friendship between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Faculty in each department have been having conversations for years due to overlapping interest in the impact of information technology. “When the Mozilla call went out,” explained Díaz, “it felt like an opportunity to transform many of these conversations into an actual project.”

The departments will work together not only on the proposal, but also on developing a new minor at UC Davis, tentatively called, “Conscientious Computing.” Amenta sees it as a way to formally offer a CS-oriented social sciences and humanities background to computer science students.

“We’re interested in preparing our students not just technically, but also to be able to be good computer professionals in general,” said Amenta. “It’s easy to forget that technology is having all kinds of unexpected impacts on the way our society is developing, so we’re trying to think a little bit out of the technological box.”

The team also included CS professors Prem Devanbu and Michael Neff, CS Ph.D. student Gabriel Castillo Cortes and STS department chair Colin Milburn.

Read more about the Mozilla Challenge on their website.