Preparing students for productive lives and successful careers requires a variety of approaches to match the diverse student population seeking higher education. In addition to the mastery of course content, students must learn problem-solving skills, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, effective communication, resourcefulness, and professionalism in order to thrive in the many roles and responsibilities they will assume in their lives. Students develop these skills by combining the rigors of technical education with the goals of liberal education. Most importantly, students learn to place their technical knowledge in the service of human progress.
As a humanist, I encourage students to develop the broad set of skills and sensibilities associated with a liberal education. In every class, students develop their ability to listen, read, think critically and quantitatively, solve problems, and communicate effectively. When lesson plans work well, students integrate these skills to evaluate an issue of immediate relevance. For example, in Networking Foundations students learn the mathematical procedure for calculating homophily, the notion that people tend to group together based on shared attributes. This topic requires students to integrate quantitative skill, problem solving, and critical thinking to evaluate the degree to which homophily drives the evolution of the network. Students apply this procedure to interpret and evaluate the role of gender in the interaction of characters in an epistolary novel as well as the quality of political discourse in new media such as blogs. Perhaps most importantly, students grapple with the network effects of homophily to understand better the importance of promoting diversity in a large heterogeneous society like the United States.
As a technologist, I incorporate technology to support the interdisciplinary goals of liberal education and promote student research experiences. Technology increases my contact time with students. For instance, video summaries of important course content on a YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/telombardi, help students to review the difficult concepts and techniques associated with the computing and information studies curriculum. Freeware and open source software provide students with access to high-quality, specialty applications for the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. For example, Cytoscape, an open source networking tool, provides students with a powerful set of features for exploring network biology. This software supports the Networking Foundations course and has contributed to student research such as the HHMI research project entitled, "Graph Theoretical Comparison of Coprinopsis Cinerea Wild Type and Mutant Networks." In the Digital Humanities intersession course, students used Pajek, a freeware application for social network analysis, to apply network theory to the rhyme scheme of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." Overall, these resources and projects aim to demonstrate technology's role in communicating and interpreting both scientific data and artistic achievement.
Finally, I aim to instill in my students a sense of duty that encourages them to place their education in the service of their fellow human beings. In my previous position at the American University in Bosnia, I developed a service learning and outreach program in which information technology students provided technical training and support services for Bosnian war widows. After a technical and sensitivity training program, the students taught women in a local cooperative the basics of computer use to help them communicate with their remaining family members in the Bosnian diaspora community. More recently, a member of the Washington-Greene County Association for the Blind, addressed students in a Digital Humanities class about the role information technology plays in helping people with vision impairment to lead active and productive lives. More than anything else, I hope that students leave my classroom knowing that they can adapt technical excellence to the needs of human development.
Dr. Thomas Lombardi is an assistant professor of Computing and Information Studies at Washington and Jefferson College. He studies networks and their application to the arts and humanities.