Computer Science/IT is a young discipline. However, with easy and cheap availability computing power, its use has become ubiquitous – there is hardly any discipline or any sphere of life which is not directly affected by IT. That is why computing (I will use computing, IT, and CS interchangeably in this note) is sometimes considered as the “new physics” – it is useful in all disciplines and its basic knowledge is essential. Today, in every discipline, knowledge of computing is an asset, and there is a demand for professionals in various disciplines who also have decent knowledge of computing.
CS is in some ways a simpler discipline. It is fundamentally about software and systems (many of which are themselves software). Hence, education programs in CS focus on these. For software, there are courses like programming, data structures, algorithms, theory behind these, software engineering, etc. And for systems, there are courses like architecture, operating systems, compilers, networks, etc. Generally a subset of these topics form the core (or compulsory) part of a BTech program. In the rest of the program, a student often does advances in these areas, as well as developments special systems like databases, run time systems, etc, or application areas like computer vision, gaming, image processing, etc. This allows for a relatively small CS core in an education program.
Contrast this with an older discipline like Electrical Engineering. Even covering the foundations will require multiple courses in basic sub-areas like circuits, signal processing, communications, controls, power system, etc. And to become an engineer who can apply concepts of these, one will have to do many more advanced courses, and labs and projects.
This ability to have a small core to teach decent amount of computing to a student which he/she can apply, renders CS easily for interdisciplinary programs which combine CS basics with knowledge of other disciplines. And given the need for the knowledge of computing in many disciplines, having an interdisciplinary program with computing makes a lot of sense, particularly since further progress in many disciplines is highly dependent on good application of computing. A good example is biology – earlier it was considered an experimental discipline. But now, without the use of computing, many aspects can simply not be done (e.g. anything to do with genomics requires huge amounts of computing.)
In fact many senior computing academics have argued that while computing as a discipline must evolve, computing must get more tightly integrated with some disciplines to have more impact of computing for society and other sciences. This is another reason for having interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT.
At IIIT-Delhi, we are taking this thinking as a key approach for growth. While we will continue focusing on Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) as a discipline, and also Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE), instead of adding more regular programs in traditional disciplines, we will add interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT in carefully selected areas which have a natural affinity to CS/IT and where combining them together brings advantages.
Last year IIIT-Delhi launched a program in CS and Applied maths. The basic motivation behind this program was that for solving problems for complex systems as well as for big data, both mathematics and computing tools and techniques need to be applied. Hence, an engineer with training in both will be better prepared to handle such problems. In addition, at research and foundational level also there are many connections between CS and Maths (in fact, many computer scientists consider themselves as mathematicians also), making mathematics a natural discipline for an interdisciplinary program with CS.
This year we are adding two new interdisciplinary programs. First is the BTech in Computer Science and Design program, which aims to develop graduates that are not only well versed with computing approaches, tools, and technologies, but are also experienced with Design approaches and new Media technologies and uses. The program will prepare students to work in the IT industry as well as digital media industry like gaming, animation, virtual/augmented reality, etc. The program will also allow students, who want to pursue higher studies, to take up higher studies in CS/IT or in Design. The program aims to develop capabilities in CS as well as Design and Digital Media. Along with this, we are also starting a center for Design and New Media, which will conduct research in these areas.
The second program is in BTech in IT and Social Sciences. Going forward we are likely to see more convergence of IT with social systems (e.g. social media) and the role social sciences will play in technology solutions and the role IT will play in addressing society’s and people’s problems, will increase. This will lead to an increase in demand for IT engineers who are also well versed with social sciences. This unique program aims to develop IT engineers with strong understanding of relevant social science disciplines as well as their methodologies. It may be an ideal program for those students who are not sure if they want to pursue engineering careers and would like to explore the possibility of going for social sciences later, but want to be ready to take an IT career if desired. Along with the program we are also establishing a research Center on IT and Society, which will research the interplay between IT and society and impact one has on the other – an area which is highly under researched in India.
Typically, in any such interdisciplinary program, a student will do a few foundation courses in first semester. Then in the next few semesters, he/she will do about 6 to 8 core (compulsory) courses in each of the two disciplines, which will provide him/her grounding in the two disciplines. In the last two years, the student will chose 4 to 6 electives from each of the disciplines, as well as do other courses that can help his/her career. (There are usually some other requirements, like HSS, and possibilities like Open Electives in the last years.) Broadly, such an interdisciplinary program satisfies requirements of a BTech in CS/IT, as well as requirements of a BA/BSc program in the second discipline. This is feasible to achieve in a 4 year program, particularly since BA/BSc are 3 year programs, and if disciplines are chosen strategically, there can be many courses which are common and hence can be counted for both disciplines. Such programs allow a student to pursue an exciting career in the intersection of the two disciplines, but also prepares the student to pursue high studies and career in one of the two disciplines, as decent knowledge of both disciplines is provided in these programs. As it is a 4 year program, it also allows students to pursue higher study programs that require 4 year college education.
Many thinkers believe that interdisciplinary approaches for problem solving is where the future lies, as silo approaches of individual disciplines are limiting and often unable to take a broader view of the problem and its context. Such interdisciplinary programs should help develop manpower which has the capabilities of at least two disciplines for problem solving.