Photo by Jonathan King
While Barnard has supported computer science (CS) majors for years, the College didn’t have its own CS program until January 2019, when Druckenmiller Professor of Computer Science Rebecca Wright, Ph.D., joined the faculty as the inaugural director of the new Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Computational Science Center. The program draws faculty from departments across the College and works to educate CS majors (whose numbers have doubled in recent years), as well as students drawn to CS through their work in related fields.
A 1988 graduate of Columbia College, Wright comes to Barnard from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she served as the director of The Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science. “Professor Wright’s thoughtful and creative approach to making computer science relevant to majors and nonmajors alike will be a boon for students,” says Professor David Bayer, chair of Barnard’s Mathematics Department.
We asked Professor Wright about her goals at Barnard.
What made you decide to come to Barnard?
At Rutgers, I co-developed a living/learning community for women majoring in CS — a process and a community I really enjoyed. When I heard that Barnard was going to develop a Computer Science Program and a Computational Science Center and needed someone to lead them, I realized that I wanted to be that person. It is such a great opportunity to work more closely with women, to be part of an excellent liberal arts institution, and to think about what computing education should look like.
Tell us more about your approach, especially since Barnard hasn’t had its own CS program until now.
Columbia already has a thriving CS department, which Barnard students have access to. So instead of focusing on the minimum that we have to create here, I want to explore what we can do beyond the basics that will serve our students. That gives a huge amount of room for creativity and flexibility. We can focus on how computing impacts the many different areas of education and society, and how we can best infuse that knowledge into different parts of the Barnard curriculum and experience.
My focus, initially, will be on things that can fit with the experiences that Barnard students already have access to. We will provide more access to advising through Barnard and will focus on building up the College’s CS community. Barnard CS majors should know each other, both because they have common interests but also so they can form study groups and help each other.
Barnard has a deep history in the arts and humanities. How will CS interact with other disciplines?
We’ll be thoughtful about differentiating between what is needed to best support Barnard CS majors and what is needed to best support Barnard students who aren’t. On the CS side, since we have the Columbia department to work with, we’ll be focusing on helping students integrate their CS experience with their overall Barnard experience.
With other students, there’s more of an open playing field. For example, every Barnard student has to fulfill the “Thinking Digitally” requirement. But the list of classes that satisfy this requirement is quite short. Adding a richer set of options will help students find ways to use computing in their areas of interest.
I view computing in an educational context as a spectrum. There are students who use computers to write papers or to do basic calculations, or maybe to do some data collection and analysis, and there are students who will become computer scientists. A lot of the room for development, and a lot of the needs of today’s students, lie at different places along that spectrum. My goal is that every Barnard student understands how they can use computing and data in their disciplines, whatever those disciplines are. •
Molly Alter is a senior software engineer at Google.