Vakil's Award Supports Ethics in Computing Course

Vakil's Award Supports Ethics in Computing Course

Sepehr Vakil at faculty retreatLearning scientist Sepehr Vakil studies the interplay of identiy, race, ethics and computing.

School of Education and Social Policy learning scientist Sepehr Vakil and Sarah Van Wart of the McCormick School of Engineering are developing a new ethics in computing class for undergraduate computer science majors with support from a Curriculum Innovation award from The Alumnae of Northwestern University.

The course Computing, Ethics, and Society is part of a broader, interdisciplinary initiative between McCormick's Department of Computer Science and the School of Education and Social Policy.

Students will delve into the social, ethical, and political implications of technological tools and processes. With access to real data, the students students will explore the ethics built into the various technologies they use every day, including social media platforms and search engines. They’ll debate the responsibility of software engineers to act in the interest of those affected by their products. 

The class is open to all students, not just computer science majors. “It offers a solid foundation for thinking about the possibilities, risks and impacts of digitally mediated infrastructures on societies,” Vakil says.  

In addition to Vakil and Van Wart, who co-direct the Technology, Race, Equity, and Ethics in Education (TREE) lab, course designers include Natalie Melo, a doctoral student in the joint computer science and learning sciences program; and undergraduate computer science majors Olivia Gallagher and Caryl Henry.

Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences, has a background in electrical engineering and has long been interested in how technology and equity intersect. He argues for more conversation in schools about the broader purposes and values in STEM education. “Who is it for, and why are we developing it?” he asks.

Last year, he received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency’s most prestigious honor for promising young academics.

The award supported the Young People’s Race, Power, and Technology (YPRPT) project, an afterschool program co-designed with community partners, including Evanston Township High School, and three Chicago community-based organizations - Family Matters, Endangered Peace, and the Lucy Parsons Labs.

In the pilot program, students from ETHS and Northwestern created three documentary films that explored how new technologies such as artificial intelligence shape the experiences of communities of color. The films were shown in June of 2020 during a special online screening in collaboration with Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.

Sarah Van WartVan Wart, assistant professor of instruction in the computer science department, is a software developer and designer who researches how to design inclusive learning environments that foster robust computing and data literacies. She also studies how to creatively broaden participation in computing and working with real-world data sets.

Prior to academia, she specialized in developing and maintaining data and communication infrastructures to support public accountability and transparency within city and regional planning efforts.

SESP’s previous Alumnae Curriculum Award winners include Megan Bang, professor of learning sciences; and Shirin Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences. In collaboration with Evanston Township High School, they created a hybrid class on educational justice that brought high school and college students together in the same classroom on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

Each Curriculum Innovation Award recipient will have the chance to present their projects to the Board of Directors of The Alumnae of Northwestern University and to share the outcomes of their project at the annual TEACHx forum. Learn more about the award and the application procedures.Faculty whose proposals are selected for funding will be notified in late December.

By Julie Deardorff/Photo of Sepehr Vakil by Steve Drey
Last Modified: 7/29/20