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The Carletonian

New computer science program offered in England

<, students interested in computer science have the opportunity to delve into the field outside of Carleton’s computer labs. Instead, with Carleton’s new “History of Computing” off-campus studies program, students will be able to study computer science in England..

“History of Computing,” based in Cambridge, will be Carleton’s first computer science off-campus studies program. Carleton Chair of Computer Science David Liben-Nowell is the faculty director leading the program.

The program hones in on two major eras of computing history, both which have major British influences. The first era is the 1800s, when the first computer and computer program were designed and written. The second is WWII, when incredible effort was put into code-breaking, especially with breaking encryption schemes used by German submarines and headquarters. Liben-Nowell will teach the history of computing course, as well as the cryptography course. A local history professor from Cambridge University will be teaching the WWII history course.

The program also shines light on computer scientist Alan Turing, who played a prominent role in the code-breaking effort of WWII. Despite this, Turing was treated cruelly by the British government because he was gay, which ultimately led him to commit suicide. The centenary of Turing’s birth six years ago came with a big push to reflect on Turing’s role in computing, as well as his life outside of it. This actually served as the impetus for Liben-Nowell organizing the History of Computing program. As a result, the program also includes a two credit interdisciplinary course about Turing and about the implications of gender and sexuality on contemporary computation.


In addition to taking courses in the classroom, students will also be exploring British culture and engaging with the people. Students will visit various places in England, including London and Manchester, and may possibly even travel across the Channel to France. They will also participate in typical British activities, such as punting. The first half of the program will have the students staying in homestays. “People assume that just because the British speak English, that they’re just like us,” said Carleton Director of Off-Campus Studies Helena Kaufman. “But that’s a very superficial way of looking at it, and sometimes places that look familiar to us need to be defamiliarized. We need to make a special effort to see them in their true nature. So the homestays can certainly help with that.”

Liben-Nowell hopes that the program will situate knowledge that could be extremely narrow about a field into its wider context. “When people study computer science, they don’t necessarily think about the bigger context of what they’re doing, or don’t have to. This is a way that will encourage people to think about what role computation or computing might play in a broader society… On a good day, computer science is about people. My hope is that a program like this is a way to connect the field to the people it affects more in the minds of students. If we can accomplish that a little bit, [the program] will be a success,” he said.

Computer science students at Carleton have already been participating in two non-Carleton off-campus study programs: the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program in Copenhagen and the AIT Budapest program. However, these programs are much more strictly computer science-oriented. “I hope that [this Carleton program] is more involved in its location, and more liberal-artsy … This program will cover a lot of other topics besides computer science,” said Liben-Nowell.

“It’s an off-campus program that’s not just about learning discipline, but also about placing the discipline in its historical and cultural context. The other programs allow you to do that too, but this one is specifically designed to do that,” said Kaufman.

Students interested in applying to the program will have to fulfill two prerequisite courses by the end of spring term. Students from any year and major are encouraged to participate.

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