A European BSc in CS curriculum?

Last Thursday we had a trial-audit of the university’s BSc in Applied Computer Science degree by EUR-INF representatives. EUR-INF is a EU-funded project that aims to contribute to harmonization of computer science degrees across the EU through working out a skills set that any BSc graduate in a particular type of CS degree should have, to figure out a way to do reasonable audits, and to devise an optional accreditation. In the spirit of the Bologna Process and with a strong smell of the Lisbon Strategy, then with such an increased harmonization, worker mobility will be greatly facilitated and probably streamlines the hiring process in industry, too.

As anyone who has studied in one country but continues his/her studies, works, or has worked abroad, there is not always a seamless match between what one has learned and what is expected to be part of one’s baggage elsewhere. There are, of course, a myriad of explanatory reasons why this is so, such as a tradition of pragmatism versus theory-first, what knowledge and skills are perceived to be needed in the society where the universities are positioned, and, more fundamentally, what constitutes an academic education. These topics are good for a never-ending discussion and, given the diversity in Europe, a futile exercise to harmonize; or, to put it negatively: the already organized ones and those with the biggest mouths and most power and money are likely to call the shots[1] and, en passant, limit options for youth to study, which eventually percolates with a 10-20 year lag into a society changing toward boring conformity and lower average education. I won’t step on that soapbox now (see e.g. here), but I’d like to mention two points. One is that the Bologna Process with the 3+2(+3) system has resulted in less university education for students, because now that there is an artificially introduced drop-out point after three years, more people tend to take that instead of continuing with a masters degree whereas before-Bologna, one had to bite through the whole 4-5 years to obtain a degree. Second, which also received quite a bit of attention during the trial-audit, is the requirement to teach students “general skills”, like doing teamwork, planning, and reflection on effects of technology on society. Apparently, the latter made it into the BSc curriculum for applied CS. Gheez. Becoming technically competent in IT with a life-time baggage of knowledge and socially adequate in 3 x 60 ECTS credits. Yeah, right. Maybe I’m getting old, but in my younger days of the first study I did at WUR (a 5-year scheme), there were some of the general skills in there, but the study was about getting a solid foundation in the discipline and general skills you just did in your own time – like doing a language course, becoming member of a society for fun but that also helps to learn to collaborate, organize events, exchange ideas with students from different backgrounds and so forth. Now this has to be crammed in the official 3-year curriculum so as to receive official credit points for it. Allucinante. And it’s the students that are being duped by being cheated out of getting value for money at the university to obtain some decent foundation with knowledge that is not outdated after toiling a few years in the industrial workforce. Being more communicative from the start may get a graduate his first job more quickly for being a smooth talker, but he’s not going to keep it with too limited knowledge of the matter; after all, each year there’s a new batch of fresh cheap graduates with the latest short-term handy skills.

Notwithstanding the meagre chance of success for harmonization (simplification is easier to achieve…), I admit that the auditors did take a thorough and sensible approach with the trial-audit. Instead of silly bean-counting and statistics-only, they spoke with the programme coordinators, students, and the teaching body, and checked BSc theses and other students’ works, as well as paying a visit to the university’s support structures such as the library facilities, student secretariat and so forth in about 2 days. In general, their feedback was positive. Regarding the new EU-initiative for the minimum of two languages, that was, obviously, trivially met in a tri-lingual faculty and a quadri-lingual university[2].

The EUR-INF project finishes in August 2008, and I assume the final results of the harmonization and accreditation endeavours will be published on their website.

[1] The present EUR-INF list for learning outcomes of BSc in CS programmes is a mix of existing accreditation systems from organizations like the ACM and country-specific ones, like those of the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands.
[2] The two main official languages in which administrative documents are produced are German and Italian, then there’s the official third language Ladin in the Faculty of Education, and we have English across the university as well as being the official language of the CS MSc and PhD programmes.

A new plant family: the Simulacraceae

May I recommend for the Friday afternoon/weekend reading: an article by Bletter, Reynertson, and Velazquez Runk in the journal Ethnobotany Research & Applications (vol. 5, 2007) on “The taxonomy, ecology, and ethnobotany of the Simulacraceae”, which has about 80 species divided in 17 genera, such as Plasticus, Textileria, and Papyroidia. Moreover,

This family is more than a botanical curiosity. It is a scientific conundrum, as the taxa:

  1. lack genetic material,
  2. appear virtually immortal and
  3. have the ability to form intergeneric crosses with ease, despite the lack of any evident mechanism for cross-fertilization.

In this study, conducted over approximately six years, we elucidate the first full description and review of this fascinating taxon, heretofore named Simulacraceae.

To summarize, also in the words of the authors,

The eco­nomics, distribution, ecology, taxonomy, paleoethnobot­any, and phakochemistry of this widespread family are herein presented. We have recently made great strides in circumscribing this group, and collections indicate this cosmopolitan family has a varied ecology. … Despite being genomically challenged plants, an initial phylogeny is pro­posed. In an early attempt to determine the ecological re­lations of this family, a twenty-meter transect has been in­ventoried from a Plasticus rain forest in Nyack, New York, yielding 49 new species and the first species-area curve for this family.

The Simulacraceae collections—based on the principal method of “opportunistic sampling”—are deposited in the herbarium of the Foundation for Artificial Knowledge Education. Some of the open problems yet to investigate include simulacrapaleoethnobotany and simulacrapolitical ecology, and from an engineering perspective, the design of a Traditional Simulacraceae Knowledge/Teleological Simulation Knowledge base (dubbed acronym “TSK,TSK”, which would compete well with the yearly naming game for the NAR January database issue).

A short html version of the article is available online in the Jan/Feb issue of AIR, but also the full pdf file (about 6MB) in the Uni of Hawaii database with more information and colourful photos (openly accessible, of course). Enjoy!