Computer Science & Engineering to launch ethics courses with Mozilla grant

Ron Cytron and other McKelvey Engineering faculty will incorporate ethics and responsibility into computer science and computer engineering courses.

Ron Cytron, professor computer science & engineering, has received a nearly $150,000 grant from Mozilla Foundation to launch new courses in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering on ethics and responsibility.

This grant allows researchers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis to investigate the study of ethics in computer science. Those studies will take place in two courses: the introduction to computer science course (CSE 131) and the introduction to data science course (CSE 217A). The McKelvey School of Engineering has more than 700 students majoring in computer science & engineering, the most popular major among Washington University undergraduate students.

"Our approach is to use the existing studio-based collaborative learning sessions to host competitions and role-playing exercises during which something 'unfair' will happen based on algorithmic decisions," Cytron said. "The unfairness will be personal, in the sense that one or more students will realize they are at a disadvantage compared to the other students. The group will then study the cause of the unfairness and propose solutions to make the algorithm fairer."

Co-principal investigators are Sanmay Das, associate professor of computer science & engineering; Sandra Matteucci, senior lecturer and director of the Engineering Communications Center; Marion Neumann, senior lecturer, and William Siever, principal lecturer, both in computer science & engineering. The courses will be in partnership with the Engineering Communications Center and the university's Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.

The 15-month grant is part of Mozilla Foundation's Responsible Computer Science Challenge, a $3.5 million competition run by Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. It launched in October 2018 and runs through 2021. The challenge is an initiative to integrate ethics into undergraduate computer science curricula at U.S. colleges and universities. Students of computer science go on to be the next leaders and creators in the world and must understand how code intersects with human behavior, privacy, safety, vulnerability, equality, and many other factors, the foundation said in a statement.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 98 tenured/tenure-track and 38 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.