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New director Gagan Agrawal discusses the future of UGA School of Computing

Alan Flurry

The University of Georgia elevated its longstanding department of computer science to a School of Computing in July 2022 in response to rising student enrollment, the growing role of computing in a range of fields, and the institutional investment in a Presidential Hiring initiative in data science and artificial intelligence. Created within an interdisciplinary framework, the School of Computing is jointly administered by the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering.

After a national search, Gagan Agrawal was selected as the inaugural director of the UGA School of Computing and began his appointment on July 1, 2023. Agrawal, most recently professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences at Augusta University, shared some of thoughts about computing at UGA, his vision for the school, and serving students in one of the largest undergraduate majors on campus.

Alan Flurry: The School of Computing is a rather unique academic unit at UGA, jointly administered by the Franklin College and the College of Engineering. How does computing in a liberal arts environment differ from in a purely technical institution?

Gagan Agrawal: About 60% research computer science departments in the US are in colleges of engineering, with about 30% in an arts and sciences college, and 10% or fewer standing as an independent college. So, I think at UGA we are unique, with administrative and budgetary details flowing through two colleges.

And yet, curriculum and research collaborations don't have to be confined to any single college. Just as an example, at one of my former institutions, Ohio State, computer science was part of engineering but it offered degrees through arts and sciences just like we do here. So institutional configuration doesn't necessarily limit curriculum or collaborations. Computing today is impacting everyone, and that reality can express itself in different ways.

AF: Does that distinction imply a strength, for computing to be in a broad, liberal arts learning environment, rather than a more narrowly defined space?

GA: People with a computing degree follow a variety of career tracks. Some might go into more of a managerial role, some may go into roles that are about interacting with others, while others would go into roles that are highly technical where you are part of a big technical team, working on code and related tasks that are closer to an engineering environment. But when you are interacting with a lot of people and needing to communicate ideas and take a more global view, travel to different parts of the world as part of a company that has a multi-national footprint, these broader skills are highly useful.

An arts & sciences degree prepares you for a variety of facets of being just a person in this society, and that's true for computing. But it goes both ways – my own education was in an engineering setting with a heavy engineering core and I certainly found in my very technical career many of those skills from other engineering classes and general education to be useful. We want to give students many different computing options.

I can't even think of a major research university that does not want a strong, highly ranked computer science program. It's just one field that so many students are interested in, it connects with so many other disciplines, and this is a critical foundation. These are very important disciplines in the current times and computing represents a significant opportunity for the university as it grows its research expenditures, and educates even stronger undergraduate and graduate students.

AF: What's the difference between computing and computer science?

GA: For several years now, computer science or computing has worn multiple hats as a field in a university. In certain ways we are this professional field with a fairly fixed program of study leading to well-prepared, job-ready graduates – graduates looking at very high-paying careers, even with an undergraduate degree. Computer science, our undergraduate degree, is a common term used for a fairly standard accredited program of study. The name School of Computing implies a broader mission where we are thinking in terms of what computing means to a variety of students and researchers throughout the campus. For example, a life sciences student, what kind of computing do they need to learn? What about students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences? 

So, we have to think of computing in the kind of role that mathematics and statistics have played and continue to play, which is a foundation used in the practice and in research of practically all disciplines. We can also think about computing as a business-like discipline where you offer a professional master's degree, again very job oriented. So, there are all these roles that computing gets to play on a campus and we want to continue to advance that.

AF: As you say, it's filtering out into a bit of everything. Where do you think computing is going?

GA: Here's an example I gave in the Franklin College leadership retreat: in the 1800's when engineering education started, there was very little mathematics in it. What happened over time and especially over the early 20th century, more mathematics and science came into how engineering is done and taught. I think in this century we might see a similar transformation with things like computing, artificial intelligence and data sciences becoming important foundational components of other disciplines. These overlapping disciplines will start changing how other fields are practiced and even taught. So, I think universities have to be ready for that change, for the computing preparation and the computing involvement integrated into the practice of all kinds of different disciplines.

AF: Great analogy. The advent of data science and AI are kind of putting a name on these trends.

GA: AI, I would certainly call it part of computing or computer science, obviously today it's all over the popular media and you have middle schoolers interacting with Chat GPT. Data science is a term that includes computing, statistics and mathematics, and again the boundaries are honestly quite fuzzy, in my opinion – if I am doing clustering, a statistician will claim that the first clustering algorithms came out of a 1940's statistics department. But the bottom line is we understand these modern tool boxes can really benefit a lot of people. And obviously there will be more core professionals in these skills that will get their full preparation and go on to have careers or do research, but these tool boxes are widely applicable to other areas. And I am excited that UGA is taking a broad approach to computing and cross-disciplinary computer science and is making that part of its mission.

AF: AI definitely has a very tight hold on the public imagination.

GA: If you go back, and I have cited it in many grant proposals, traditionally in science there are two ways of doing things: theory and experimentation. About 70 years ago, they started talking about a third pillar of science – computation, which is basically using a computer to solve equations and model a phenomenon. And over the last 30 years, data driven methods have emerged to enhance that dynamic: rather than simulated experiments, we look to all the data to help guide us and find things. And with AI being applied, these data driven methods becoming more advanced and more readily available. Modern AI represents less of a new tool than a lot of data meeting a lot of computation. And now all of a sudden, things are being made feasible that people in the very early days of AI in the 1950s and 60s said would be possible. We can bring a lot of data together, store it, and apply extraordinary computing power to it, all of which make the modern AI models work. 

AF: What do you see as opportunities to collaborate with industry and the private sector?

GA: Atlanta is a growing tech hub nationally, with more and more major companies having a footprint in Atlanta, plus the companies headquartered there. The number of potential employers you have with a computer science degree today is very large. Delta Airlines apparently recruits a lot of our students, as computing skills have become so fundamental to operating an airline. I think the possibilities for collaboration are tremendous and I look forward to connecting with more companies and seeing how we can partner. 

In addition, we just started a capstone elective for students in 2023. Capstone projects are quite common in engineering and present the opportunity for very interesting interactions with industry. For our capstone elective, an industry partner will sponsor a project for our students to work on. It's a chance for our students to simulate a real-world scenario where they are using their technical skills acquired in three years during their fourth year working to solve a client problem. 

AF: Computing is one of the dynamic drivers for unleashing potential on campus for innovative instruction and research collaboration. Like technology itself, it sometimes happens faster than we were ready for but the capability is there.

GA: If you watch the film Apollo 13, they have this control room with this red telephone. But who was sitting on the first row? A bunch of MIT engineers each with a slide rule. When they had to change certain things on the flight mission, they would give the parameters and ask for calculations and two or three people would do the calculations right there with a note pad and a slide rule. Can you imagine things being controlled in that fashion today? It's only 52 years ago.

Image: Gagan Agrawal. Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA


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