Computer Science department receives prestigious grant from National Science Foundation

The Colby Computer Science department recently received a $344,671 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help the College explore the idea of “computing across the curriculum.” For the particular grant Colby received, the area of focus was Computing in Undergraduate Education (CUE), specifically expanding the range of computer science into other disciplines. Other institutions awarded the same grant include Mount Holyoke and Union colleges. 

In an interview with the the Echo, Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of computer science Ying Li explained “The big picture is CS [computer science] is used in all disciplines. Programming is used in research from biology to sociology, and the demand for computer science faculty is high now.”

Li adds that now is the most important time to bridge the gap between different disciplines. She describes how certain computing terminology might be unfamiliar to non-CS majors. “The concept of a for loop might be something someone with little CS knowledge has never heard of. When in fact, it means repeating a series of data sequences.”

When asked what the grant money will be used for, Li says the goal is to “invent CS into non-CS majors.” The department will first begin with interviewing faculty members across different departments to assess what their computer science needs are. After that, the computer science department will create modules to be used by the professors to teach them and their students the applicable skills. There are also plans at the moment to hold a faculty workshop this summer to further support those professors. 

The NSF is a government agency with the mission of supporting innovation and research in the non-medical sciences with an annual budget of over $8.28 billion. 

Funding is divided into divisions with project managers specializing in K-12, undergraduate, graduate, or private businesses. The project managers, through speaking with experts in the field, find underdeveloped or emerging areas that they believe are vital to fund. After that, the NSF will announce a funding opportunity for a specific area. Institutions answer the call by designing a project outlined in a booklet called a Research Funding Proposal (RFP) or request for proposal. 

The RFP was put together by Professor Bruce A. Maxwell, the head of the computer science department at the College. Maxwell explains, “The RFP is probably well over 100 pages, but only about the first 15 describe the actual proposal. The rest is comprised of budgeting plans, your facilities, meaning equipment, and the CVs of everyone involved in your proposal.” 

The process of writing the RFP can take up to six months. Maxwell described the grant from the NSF as the “gold standard” and a “very selective process.” From then on, the RFPs are read by the project manager who chooses about 25 or so RFPs to be reviewed by a panel. The panel is comprised of voluntary reviewers, many of whom are professors and researchers. The reviewers read the proposals and provide feedback. The reviewers will then recommend individual proposals to the project manager, who makes the ultimate decision. For the institutions that are not awarded a grant, they still receive feedback on how to improve their proposals. The entire process can take up to a year to a year and half, with a six month waiting period for institutions after the RFP is submitted. The College is still responsible for annual reporting to the NSF along with a final report. 

About 77% of the NSF’s grants go to colleges, universities, and other academic institutions. The remaining 23% is doled out between private businesses, federal research centers, and non-profit organizations. 

The College has already started making CS more accessible to non-major students by offering an Intro to R class. The one-credit course, which is offered in the fall, is a crash course to teach specific computer science skills that are useful for other majors. The course is self-paced and comprised of eight different projects and is supplemented by a one hour lab with Maxwell. No prior experience is needed. With the additional money from the grant, the College hopes to establish a curriculum to be used at other colleges to all teach all students computer science skills. 

Both Maxwell and Li discussed that the department has another NSF grant proposal underway at the moment. Its focus is on establishing a high speed network to support the processing of a huge data dump from research in fields like biology and environmental science. While the proposal is still in its early stages, Maxwell and Li are excited at the prospect of hearing back.

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