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Arroyo, Haas, Osterweil Receive NSF Grant to Continue Developing Platform for Ethical and Responsible Computing Education

Arroyo, Haas, and Osterweil

A team of researchers from the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), including Associate Professor in Computer Science and Education Ivon Arroyo, Doctoral Program Director Professor Peter J. Haas, and Professor Emeritus Leon Osterweil, as well as postdoctoral researcher Heather Conboy and Francisco Castro of New York University, have been awarded a $651,238 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue developing PEaRCE (Platform for Ethical and Responsible Computing Education), an online interactive platform for ethical and responsible computing (ERC) education. 

PEaRCE has been developed over several years by CICS students and faculty to complement other ERC efforts within the college by providing students in every CICS technical class with a basic exposure to ethical issues that can arise from the technology that they are studying.  

"PEaRCE's approach is to engage students in immersive, interactive scenarios, designed to create plausible, believable situations with which the students might well be confronted as part of their work assignments," says Osterweil. "Our goal is to make sure that our students bring ethical and societal-responsibility awareness to all their technical and professional work. And that they have been sufficiently well-educated to be able to skillfully and incisively make decisions that are clearly and comfortably consistent with the ethical value systems in which they have been imbued by their families, their communities, and their UMass Amherst education." 

A typical PEaRCE simulation puts the students in the role of an employee at a company or another influential institution, such as a government agency, that is developing technology that can be beneficial, but also has the potential to do harm if not designed and deployed carefully. Students then decide whether to continue with the project immediately, or to first talk to various project stakeholders who could provide additional information about the project and its impacts. At the end of the simulation, students are provided information about the project scenario, including the potential impacts of the project and feedback on stakeholder conversation choices. 

"In general, the project lays the groundwork for institutional improvement in computer science education, particularly the effective integration of basic responsible-computing skills into CS education," says Arroyo. "We hope to make future computer science workers aware and informed of how computer systems may do harm, and their potential role as participants within such endeavors." 

The NSF award will fund a study on how best to integrate PEaRCE into the CICS curriculum, as well as how to assess the platform's effectiveness. To this end, a small group of teaching assistants specializing in ethical and responsible computing are working with instructors in COMPSCI 320: Introduction to Software Engineering and COMPSCI 969: Independent Study - Data Science this semester to try out different activities that can potentially enhance a PEaRCE simulation exercise. 

A preliminary paper describing a pilot study on several hundred students was published at the 2023 Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) conference, and more pilot deployments are being planned for New York University, Smith College, and Northeastern University. 

"We are very excited about our ongoing and planned PEaRCE deployments to Smith College, New York University, and Northeastern University as a first step in disseminating PEaRCE more widely," says Professor Peter J. Haas. "We envision development of a global repository of PEaRCE scenarios where computer science educators can both find scenarios germane to their classes and contribute modified or new scenarios that others can use. We hope our efforts will help ensure that the next generation of computer scientists will develop new technology in a thoughtful and informed manner, maximizing the potential of computer science to improve lives while avoiding the mistakes of the past." 

"We are particularly proud that the PEaRCE project has been a community effort, benefitting from substantial contributions by many people in CICS," says Arroyo, Haas, and Osterweil. "Most notably, Heather Conboy created the initial prototype and has continued to provide incisive insights and strong leadership for all aspects of PEaRCE, at every phase of development. [Part-time lecturer] David Fisher mobilized sections of his CS 320 and 320H courses, deploying scores of students to design and build the basic components of what became the web-based version of PEaRCE. Michelle Trim made invaluable contributions to early conceptualizations of PEaRCE. Yuriy Brun, David Jensen, and Andrew McCallum graciously (and bravely) allowed students in their courses to run prototype PEaRCE scenarios, enabling us to get invaluable early feedback. Sahitya Raipura supervised these prototype runs and, along with Francisco Castro, was a lead author of the first peer-reviewed paper about the project. Ishaan Khurana, Enoch Hsaio, and Phil Meneghini have been stalwarts in important work on extending, debugging, and documenting the PEaRCE system software. The project leaders wish to acknowledge and thank these key contributions and those of many others, too numerous to mention by name."