The Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-Specialists

10/24/2022 GCOE Communications

New one-year program drives broader perspectives, economic justice and talent to a ‘wide-open’ industry. 

Written by GCOE Communications

Professor Tiffani Williams joined the Department of Computer Science in 2020  and immediately began the work of launching iCAN, the Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-Specialists. iCAN is a one-year certificate program for people with a degree in any field other than computer science – such as English,  business, marketing, architecture, political science, biology, creative arts  and engineering – who have an interest in the computing sector.

Illinois CS professor Tiffani Williams headshot.
Tiffani Williams
Williams has a long history of establishing similar courses and programs at Texas A&M and Northeastern University.

At those institutions, she met a lot of students who “had apprehension…because of what they had heard about programming – computer science and all the baggage that comes with that. But then they can see within a very short few weeks that they create things on the computer, even if they were these simple things. The computer has become something that was no longer  a consumer device.”

While that apprehension has diminished for many people over the years, the need for people who can bridge computer science and other specialties has only grown. “I started teaching the class in 2009-2010. Smart phones were coming in. Twitter was just starting. People were using apps, and apps are programs, right? And then there were all these other ways we could interact with the phone, the refrigerator, alarm systems, all these smart devices, all of this stuff. We’re in a whole new category here, now.”

“People started seeing all the places that computing exists and seeing that things have to be programmed and that they were interacting with programming much more than they initially would have imagined. And that they could be part of that if they wanted to be,” Williams said.

A first cohort of iCAN students completed the program in 2021, and a second cohort is now taking part. Williams recently talked to  us about these efforts, why they were launched, and the changing world of computer science.  Her comments have been condensed and edited.

The Main Goal

Let me be clear about why the iCAN program even exists, at least at the CS department at Illinois. In CS, there is not a broad representation of people in the field. When I first was able to teach non-majors, I liked that I was seeing more diverse perspectives all in one classroom. Not just race. Not just gender. Modes of thinking, right? The humanities, the engineers, the scientists, all in the same classroom together. I liked that mix on so many different levels. 

So the main goal of iCAN is to increase the representation of those who want to do computing.

We’re thinking about that from a diversity and inclusion and equity perspective and as a form of justice – of economic justice, because computer science jobs are some  of the best-paying jobs in the country, and you have large swaths of people missing from those.  That is an injustice.

If we can increase the representation of different people in computing, we’re doing more than just having different apps. We’re helping people be in  better positions to support their families, to address different kinds of bias that we see in algorithms in decision making in mortgages and real estate, to influence crime and the criminal justice system in positive ways. All of those things  are in play when you’re talking about a program with goals  like we have with iCAN.

Computing  Fundamentals

iCAN focuses on getting people a certificate in computing fundamentals, which includes programming, algorithms and data structures. Students who do not have that trifecta and do have a college degree are in the iCAN graduate certificate territory.

We also use a cohort education model. Students come in, and it’s a three-semester program. Students come in at the same time, and the first two semesters, they take the exact same classes. Peer-to-peer, working together, collaborative group work and all those kinds of things. The third semester is when they can do a capstone-type project and an elective from our traditional CS curriculum to  round out their experience.

We add to that a seminar experience, because these are graduate students. From the get-go, from their first semester, they take a seminar where they’re getting exposed to the breadth of computing by reading research papers. We select those so they get progressively more advanced. The point there is: Computing is an ever-evolving field. There are fundamentals that we are teaching them, but also how is computing evolving from those fundamentals. They need to be able to keep up with the literature. And if they have a particular thing of interest, they need to learn how to read the literature so that they can feel confident, so they can follow that field and pick up some new things. To learn how to learn is maybe  the best way to put it.

Half of the time of the seminars is based on reading papers. The other half is hands-on activities that don’t fit in the regular computing fundamentals curriculum but show a particular tool like github or something like that, or some programming language that would show them how their background might translate into learning a new language. The curriculum overall is innovative, but that piece is particularly innovative and takes advantage of the fact that they’re graduate students. Especially  for the research papers, they  are required to write an essay  reflecting on that experience.

The classes are graduate-level, even though some cover fundamentals that a freshman or sophomore computer science student would be exposed to. We’re doing it in an accelerated way, and we incorporate writing and reflection exercises into  the curriculum.

How Are We Doing?

While the curriculum is really, really important, one of the things we want to do with the iCAN program is to make the students feel like they actually belong and that they have the smarts and the intellectual ability to succeed in the courses. We don’t want students  to feel like if they don’t do well on the first test, it’s over for them.

So one of the things we have with our program is an academic advisor, one of whose roles is just  to do check-ins. Making sure that the program is meeting the needs of the students. “How are we doing? Is there anything we  need to address?”

We have a heterogeneous mix – since these are college graduates and we’re looking to increase opportunities. It can be everything from recent college graduates to mid-career folks to people who are looking at a career change and looking for a way to upskill with computing. They probably have mouths to feed, dependants, bills to pay. So one of the things in our admissions process is making it very clear what the expectation is from the iCAN program’s perspective, so a student  knows what is required to  be successful.

Computing Plus  Your Past

One of the things we try to acknowledge is that all the students are coming from some previous background. We don’t want people to erase that background. The goal is not to say, “Let’s turn you into a traditional computer scientist or get you on the path to that.” Instead, we’re saying, “Whatever you’re bringing in, it’s that plus computing.  Not computing minus your past.”

The reality is things are just wide open. If you’re coming from a marketing background and you add computing, who knows what kind of jobs you can get. Right  now, you may be able to apply  for opportunities that you might not have been able to before, because you didn’t know how  to program. Maybe you can be  a tech consultant or an intermediary between the marketing department and the software engineers. So there’s  this whole space that nobody  has a good handle on, but we  know people want to stay in  their background and add computing to it.

Even if I wanted to be a traditional developer – say I  wanted to do that at John Deere – John Deere might want me to  be a crop scientist or know something about agriculture.  You have the sets of opportunities for people bringing in different backgrounds, and computing  skills are needed in every  industry. But not everyone who is traditionally trained in CS is interested in working in that type  of role in that type of industry.

There’s also a clear path from iCAN for people who want to go into graduate school in computer science. One of the things about our curriculum is it’s 20 credit  hours per year, but up to eight  of those can be transferred to  our MS and PhD programs.

Read the original story from Grainger Engineering's Limitless Magazine.

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This story was published October 24, 2022.