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New graduate class combining computer science, public policy and law to be offered starting Spring 2020

The class, named Innovation in the Public Interest, will involve students implementing solutions to real problems presented by government entities

A multidisciplinary team of faculty will be launching a new graduate class in the spring 2020 semester that focuses on problem solving from three fields of expertise — computer science, public policy and law. The class, called Innovation in the Public Interest, will involve learning about the problems facing the intersecting space of technology, law and policy. Students will work in teams to solve problems given to them by project sponsors who will be government entities such as the Department of Defense.

Directed by Computer Science Prof. Jack Davidson, the Cyber Innovation and Society Institute is a group of faculty at the University who are interested in exploring the societal implications of technological innovations. A meeting held by the institute eventually led to the birth of the new class.

Thomas Nachbar, U.Va. Law professor and senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law, and Philip Potter, U.Va. associate professor of politics and public policy and director of the National Security Policy Center,  were two of those who attended the meeting. Davidson said that after talking, they realized their shared interests in interdisciplinary work. According to Nachbar, the three professors discussed the idea of the class last year.

Potter and Nachbar explained the structure of the class in phone interviews with The Cavalier Daily.

“There's going to be three teams working on three different problems,” Potter said. “Each of them will be one-third of students from each of the disciplines, so a third law, a third engineering, a third policy.”

“It will be a little combination of them… learning about the problem-solving process that the government winds up using and then ... getting a handle on exactly what kind of problems the project sponsors want us to solve,” Nachbar said.

In addition, students will learn about each of the three disciplines’ unique approaches to problem-solving. 

“Thinking about that through each of the lenses will help students get exposure to a variety of frameworks and perspectives,” Potter said.

The professors will take turns lecturing on topics specific to their respective fields of expertise while the problem-solving approach lectures will involve all three. However, the majority of the class will be devoted to solving the problems presented by the sponsors, culminating in a presentation to the sponsors themselves.

Davidson described the process that students will use to develop solutions to the problems — a standard methodology in software engineering known as agile development.

“The key there is you do things in tight integration with your customer,” Davidson said. “You set… short-term goals, and those are called sprints. And the team works to achieve that, and then once you got something, you always go back to the customer and say, 'We built this, is it in the right direction?' And then you set your next sprint. It's always innovating in touch with your customer.”

Davidson contrasted the agile approach to a model where customers and developers only meet and discuss the solution at the beginning and end of the development process, which could be problematic as customers often change their minds later about the specifications they want.

Each of the professors shared their hopes for what students in the class will take away.

“I think it's great for students who have an interest in this particular area, those who are looking to get exposure and experience with the national security community,” Potter said. “But even at a bigger level, I think it's really good for students to deal with practical problem-solving, learning how to apply their skills, how to work in interdisciplinary teams.”

Nachbar said that for law students specifically, getting practice in understanding a problem from the perspective of the business and/or entity itself is beneficial. 

“The ability to work directly with — in this case students — from other disciplines, is what lawyers do for their entire career,” Nachbar said. “They go out and they work with engineers at a company or they work with policymakers, and a big part of what lawyers do is really understand what those people are trying to do and help them do it better.”

Davidson said that for computer science students, getting experience with the agile development process while solving real problems will be beneficial for them as they begin their careers.

All three professors said that challenges would include logistical issues, the biggest of which is having students who work in physically distant areas come together to work in teams on projects. In addition, they mentioned possible challenges with having interdisciplinary students and faculty come together. 

“[Other disciplines’] vocabularies are different,” Davidon said. “We over here use technical jargon like agile development, sprint, scrum... I'm sure they have their own vocabulary of talking about things, and that's sort of why we want to do this, to understand and see those differences.”

Potter echoed this sentiment. “Everybody is kind of used to speaking their own language and doing things in their own particular disciplinary way, but I think it's good for all of us to break out of that shell and learn how to talk to other people,” Potter said. 

Nachbar said that different teaching methods in each discipline could also pose a challenge for the class. 

“I teach largely socratically, and I don't think that's the way it happens in engineering,” Nachbar said. He added that he is not too concerned about this since he knows Davidson and Potter well and hence feels they could work out any issues. 

The team has received funding from a grant provided by the Public Interest Technology University Network. According to Davidson, the money will be used for hiring graduate students who will help manage the projects and coordinate communication between the students and sponsors. It will also be used for funding travel to meet the sponsors in person in D.C.

All three professors said that they hope students take away an understanding of and appreciation for working on real problems in an interdisciplinary fashion.

“A lot of the work that they're going to do in their careers moving forward — they're going to be part of large groups with a lot of different types of expertise,” Potter said.

“At least in the public sector... all technical issues are legal, policy issues are legal and all legal and policy issues are technical issues at some level,” Nachbar said. “And I'd like to see them come away with that understanding.”