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SIPA offers new coding class to help students augment policy analysis

Computing in Context, a course in Columbia University’s Computer Science department, has added a new track designed for SIPA students that will teach computational concepts and coding in the context of solving policy problems.

Enrolled students will be taught by both a computer-science professor, who lectures on basic computer and programming skills while teaching students to think like computer scientists, and by a SIPA professor who shows how those skills can augment traditional policy analysis. Projects and assignments will be geared for the policy arena to give students a command of technical solutions for problems they are likely to encounter in their classes and future work.

SIPA’s is the first new track to be added since Computing in Context debuted in spring 2015 with tracks in digital humanities, social science, and economics and finance. Aimed at liberal-arts majors who might not otherwise take computer science, Computing in Context is the first of its kind to provide a contextualized introduction that combines algorithmic thinking and programming with projects and assignments from different liberal-arts disciplines.

How much should students in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) know about computer science?

In a digital world when information is being collected at unprecedented rates and as government decision-making becomes more data driven, computer science is fast becoming fundamental to policy analysis. Computational methods offer an efficient way to navigate and assess a variety of systems and their data, and make it possible to comb even massive data sets for subtle patterns that might otherwise go undiscovered. A relatively small amount of code can replace tedious, time-consuming manual efforts to gather data and refine it for analysis.

As machine learning and text mining turn texts into data analyzable by a computer, computational methods once reserved for quantitative data can now be applied to almost any type of document—emails, tweets, public records, transcripts of hearings—or to a corpus of tens or hundreds of thousands of documents. These new methods for computationally analyzing texts and documents make computer science relevant to humanities and social science disciplines that traditionally have not been studied computationally. Social science majors may analyze vast numbers of social media posts, English majors may automate stylistic analyses of literary works, finance students may mine data for new economic trends.

Liberal-arts students have been increasingly skipping the cursory computer-science class intended for non-majors (1001) and enrolling in computer-science classes alongside computer-science majors. Adam Cannon, who has been teaching introductory computer science for 15 years has watched the number of liberal-arts students in his classes climb to the point where they have surpassed the number of computer-science majors.

“These students want more than an appreciation of computer science,” he said. “They want to apply computer-science techniques in their own fields.”

Computer science within a context

Algorithmic thinking is critical for designing solutions to new problems and analyzing new data sets, but the nature of the problems and the data sets depends on the particular field of study. Different liberal-arts disciplines require different kinds of computational proficiency; for this reason, Computing in Context maintains separate tracks for each discipline, with each track taught by a different professor. The class debuted with three tracks: social science, digital humanities, and economics and financing. All students take the computer-science component and learn the same basic concepts, but then divide into separate tracks to learn how those concepts apply to their particular discipline.

It’s a modular design that makes it easy to insert additional tracks as more departments and professional schools act to make computer-science part of their students’ curriculum. The first time a new track is offered, a professor from that department lectures live, and then records those lectures for future semesters. This flipped classroom approach—where students view videos of lectures outside class and use classroom time to discuss the content of those videos—helps make the class financially sustainable since each new track represents a one-time expense.

SIPA’s is the first track to be added since Computing in Context was introduced and is being taught by Gregory Falco, a Columbia adjunct faculty member who is also an executive at Accenture and is currently pursuing his PhD in Cybersecurity of Critical Urban Infrastructure at MIT. With an MS in Sustainability Management from Columbia University, Falco specializes in applying data, analytics, and sensors to solve complex sustainability and security policy problems.

Having Falco teach a track within Computing in Context is part of SIPA’s commitment to deeply integrating technology courses into its curriculum and equipping students with a robust tech and computer-science skill set. It is one way Deans Merit Janow and Dan McIntyre are helping Falco pioneer the next generation of policy education.

What SIPA students can expect

For the first six weeks of the course, SIPA students will attend the twice-weekly lectures on computer science along with all other students. At the halfway point, the track lectures kick in, and SIPA students go to lectures given by Falco, who will also assign homework and projects geared specifically to public policy. While economics and financing students price options and digital humanities students run sentiment analysis on tweets, SIPA students might be troubleshooting sources of environmental pollution, evaluating the effectiveness of public housing policy, or determining the impact of local financial markets on international healthcare or education.

Considering SIPA is a professional school, Falco’s lectures and assignments are aimed at helping students integrate and transition what they learn in the classroom to the professional setting and job market.

Unlike other tracks, the SIPA track will always have live lectures each time it is given. The changing relevance of policy problems requires a class constantly evolving for current events. Also, the skills SIPA students learn in Computing in Context will be integrated into their capstone research projects that serve as graduate theses; since Falco teaches both Computing in Context and will advise research projects, his constant, in-class presence will provide a more continuous resource of expertise on data and computing for SIPA students.

“This is a one-of-a-kind, very cool policy class because it enables SIPA students to think like computer scientists and see the art of the possible in relation to how technology, data analytics, and artificial intelligence can be used to address policy problems,” says Falco. “Beyond coding, the class helps foster the language of digital literacy which is invaluable in the professional world for policy practitioners.”

The SIPA track will be the first test of how well Computing in Context can scale to meet demand, which is only expected to grow as more departments and schools like SIPA integrate computer science into their curricula.

— Linda Crane

Thanks to the Department of Computer Science. This article has been adapted from the longer original version.

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Congratulations to Meghan Arakelian, MPA-DP ’15, and Abigail Gregg, MPA-DP ’15, newly named recipients of Fulbright-Clinton Fellowships for 2015-16.

According to the U.S. State Department, which administers the fellowship program, Fulbright-Clinton Fellows “serve in professional placements as special assistants in foreign government ministries or institutions and gain hands-on public sector experience in participating foreign countries while simultaneously carrying out an academic research/study project.”

Arakelian and Gregg — recent SIPA alumnae who account for two out of just 19 fellowships awarded overall — are both awaiting placement in Timor-Leste.

Official biographies (courtesy Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship program)

Meghan Arakelian holds a master of public administration in development practice from Columbia SIPA and a bachelor of arts in international affairs from the George Washington University. Her graduate studies were guided by an interest in nutrition policy. She completed an independent study as a member of the core writing and data analysis team for the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Nutrition Report. Working with a team of graduate student consultants for the World Food Programme, Ms. Arakelian drafted country synthesis reports on nutrition governance for Bangladesh, Nepal, Rwanda, and Uganda. She also completed an internship in Nepal with the World Food Programme, working with the UN REACH Partnership on nutrition governance and multi-sectoral approaches to nutrition.

Prior to graduate school, Arakelian worked at Philantropia, a development consultancy based in New York, engaging with NGOs working in international development and human rights. While at Philantropia, she designed fundraising plans, researched prospective donors, and provided strategic resource mobilization advice for organizations in over forty countries. Ms. Arakelian has co-led NGO capacity building trainings in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.

As a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow, Arakelian hopes to gain experience developing policies to reduce stunting and malnutrition in Timor-Leste. She plans to research holistic approaches to nutrition, specifically operational and technical synergies across relevant ministries.

Abigail Gregg holds a master of public administration in development practice from Columbia SIPA. She received bachelor degrees in anthropology and English (creative writing) from the University of Southern California.  Gregg is a wilderness emergency medical technician certified by the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School.

At USC, Gregg conducted fieldwork in South Los Angeles, Cambodia, and Brazil. Her work in Los Angeles explored food security and environmental health issues, and community response to these problems. In Cambodia, she worked with the Shoah Foundation and the Documentation Center of Cambodia, recording testimony from survivors and perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide. In Brazil, Gregg produced an ethnography of street food vendors and their role in cultural and economic identities.

While at Columbia, Gregg returned to Brazil to work with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the Amazon and their host, the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation. Her coursework at SIPA primarily focused on crisis prevention and response though environmental management. She is currently a research fellow for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where she is part of a joint research team with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, addressing Papua New Guinea’s mining sector.

As a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow, Gregg intends to focus on natural disaster risk and preparedness in Timor-Leste’s conservation areas and explore options for joint conservation and resilience initiatives.

Photographs of Meghan Arakelian (left) and Abigail Gregg courtesy U.S. State Department

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"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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