Ababiy: The University must shape the state’s technological future

Jonathan Ababiy

The University of Minnesota has a unique educational monopoly on the state. Unlike states of similar size like Colorado, Oregon and South Carolina, the University is the state’s sole high-activity research university. The school is our state’s heart, drawing in students for four years, then releasing them to nourish society. Our school provides the educators who will teach our children, farmers who will feed us and business people who will lead our commerce.

This educational monopoly is remarkably strong in the field of computer science. No other school in the state compares to the University’s computer science program. It spent 78 times more on research and development in computer science in 2015 than the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the next-closest Minnesota school. The Department of Computer Science and Engineering is creating Minnesota’s next technological class.

I am sure that this Gopher-filled technology class will be highly skilled — the University has excellent rankings in computer science. I am worried, however, that while the University rushes to make highly skilled and adept computer coders, programmers and engineers, it forgets that it must educate its students.The University is training its students to learn all the coding languages they need to run the Target website in a couple of years, but it neglects to teach its students that their knowledge has power, which in itself carries implicit assumptions and ideologies about society. 

In essence, the University is only teaching its computer science students to tread water and stay afloat in our electronic society, not to swim or to go in a certain direction. This leaves a generation of students subject to the tumultuous currents of technology. I don’t mean that computer science students are merely sheep, but the University treats them as such by not giving them a well-rounded and much-deserved education that must combine professional skills and critical thinking. 

The Department of Computer Science and Engineering lists only one class, CSCI 3921W: Social, Legal and Ethical Issues in Computing, in its course catalog that discusses the role of computing and technology in society. The class isn’t recommended within the four-year plans of the BA or BS degrees, either. 

It should be mandatory for computer science students to take a humanities class about technology or a class like CSCI 3921. Perhaps it will not offer any skills that students can put on a resume, and that’s OK. 

The class should not tell students what to believe about technology — society already does. Instead, it should offer and teach ways of thinking that pierce through accepted social truths. Students may examine the facts and see that they like the role technology plays in our lives, or they may find that it’s going to destroy us all. 

The key is that students take the revolutionary action of confronting the silicon train. A proper University of Minnesota computer science education should make its students decide if more technology equals more progress. It is a question that demands our computing students to think about the power of their actions: who benefits when we speak of disruption, who loses out in technology? 

Essentially, computing students at the University must learn that they have and can make a choice about technology, without letting society decide for them. Their code will run our state. Perhaps this is naive, but I simply wish for our future technological class to be thoughtful. Our state needs socially conscious computer scientists, and the University of Minnesota, the premier educational institution in our state, has the power to create them.