Behold, Curiosity

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Three themes symbolize the 20 year history and continued growth of the College of Computing and Informatics (CCI): Curiosity, Action, and Care. It is a triad of interrelated elements, each feeding and recreating the other two. Here, I want to focus on Curiosity.

Curiosity is at the origin of everything. All knowledge and discovery begins with a question, with a yearning to know, a sense of wonder. All meaningful action springs from new information discovered, an existing model altered, or an insight discovered that requires new experimentation or implementation. Curiosity, as a problem solver, also breeds compassion for the challenges and adversities faced by others.

Curiosity drives change. Questions ignite an irreversible process. Once a question is posed and  a new perspective is discovered, we cannot go back, un-know, deny or ignore. We own what we know. We are bound to care. We are compelled to act. Curiosity changes us. 

At CCI, we have posed the following questions: What factors matter in the success of our students? Does an ACT score matter? Does the high school GPA matter? Does the socio-economic status of a student’s family matter? Does the number and nature of transfer credits matter? Does gender? Race? Ethnicity? 

The answers we discovered - and are still discovering - surprised us, touched us, puzzled us, and gave rise to more questions. The data and perspectives gained from these questions led to individual and collective reflection, initiatives, and the development of programs. The answers shed some light on the role we faculty and administration do/can/should play. They impelled us to reexamine our practices, redesign pedagogies and administrative processes. The desire to know, the posing of the questions, unleashed the power of “proximity to the problem’” as described by social justice scholar and activist Bryan Stevenson. Ensuring student success is the problem we are closest to and must address. Our daily practices and processes are part of a system. Equity in student success must be the core of its design, not an afterthought.

Curiosity is a duty. Ignorantia juris non excusat  (ignorance of the law cannot excuse), and lack of curiosity about important matters does not excuse. At CCI, we aim to equip all of our graduates with the intellectual tools and the habit of mind to always be curious about the ethics of computing, curious about the impact of the processes and products of any system they help design, maintain, or integrate with. We aim to have graduates who are always curious about intended and potential impacts. It is their professional duty and their ethical responsibility to be curious, to raise the questions, to find the answers, and to maximize the good and prevent the harm. Examples abound of systems designed with a failure of curiosity about who they impact and how they impact them. Systems designed to assess the severity of patients in an emergency ward, thus deciding who to care for first and who to make wait; systems designed to assess the likelihood of recidivism, thus deciding which offender is given a second chance and which offender is denied; systems designed to classify resumes, thus deciding whose resume to eliminate and who to select for interview are all designed with metrics and processes that “make sense”. They are designed with the intention to manage some limited resources and maximize identified outcomes to their main stockholders. They all fall short in curiosity, care, and action toward the other stakeholders, the people whose health, life, livelihood are impacted by these decisions. These systems fall short in curiosity about perpetuating, legitimizing, and magnifying inequities. They fall short in curiosity about the biases hidden in the data and the metrics and their compound effect over time; the effect of burying these biases forever inside a compact system seen as “rational” and “neutral”. At CCI we believe it is the duty of every professional to remain curious, to ask, to care, and to act. It is our ambition that no CCI graduate will ever fall short of curiosity.

Curiosity must be managed. Curiosity allocates attention. In our connected world where there is never a shortage of distractions and shiny objects, the hardest thing may not be how to pay attention but how to pay attention to what matters and how to do so in a sustained fashion. One of my favorite statements from architect, environmentalist and futurist Bucky Fuller is one that captures his awareness of the scarcity of attention and the need to manage it. He is known to ask “What is the most important thing we can be thinking about (in this time we have)?” Fuller is an example for all of us to follow as individuals, institutions, and societies. We must discipline our attention towards the most important issues of our time, the three divides, as Otto Sharmer calls them, the ecological divide manifest in unsustainable development environmental crises; the social divide, manifest in outdated social structures and institutions perpetuating injustices and inequities; and the spiritual divide manifest in growing anxiety and polarization. These are existential threats that receive attention inversely proportional to their importance. One only need to watch the news cycles, the research agendas, and the many strategic plans to see how starved these divides are for our attention. It is our ambition at CCI to model the focusing of our attention to what matters in our curricula, pedagogy, research, and governance structure. 

For twenty years, CCI has cherished the curiosity of its students. Our faculty and staff work with them to further cultivating this curiosity so it can become their most important professional and social asset. By refining their curiosity, focusing it, they emerge responsible, caring professionals and citizens who see opportunities, care about their world, and act on it.

- Dean Fatma Mili

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