Prioritizing the Ethical Dimensions of Computer Science

NU Tech Ethics Initiative

If you ask 10 different people to define “ethics,” you’ll likely get 10 different answers. All, however, would likely agree that the application of ethical frameworks to computing technologies is mission critical — especially as new innovations like ChatGPT have raised a host of new questions around the potential harms and benefits of technologies, how and why such tools are developed, and to what ends might they be used and abused.

A passionate, dedicated team of students guided by Avery Keare, Victoria C. Chávez, and Natalie Araujo Melo launched the Northwestern (NU) Tech Ethics Initiative in winter quarter 2022 to prioritize the ethical dimensions of computer science (CS) and reframe technology and ethics as a singular whole within CS education. The initiative examines areas of ethics theory and research including responsible artificial intelligence (AI), anti-Blackness in CS education, disability and accessibility, diversity and inclusion, and moral philosophy.

“Technologies don't exist in vacuums,” said Keare, a fourth-year computer science student in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “We're not only approaching ethics from an individual or community-level impact, but also looking at the systemic power structures that are at play that mean some people's interests are best served by these technologies, and some people have a greater risk of being harmed.”

Second-year PhD student Chávez and fourth-year PhD student Melo are members of the joint program in Computer Science and Learning Sciences (CS + LS) through Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and the McCormick School of Engineering. Both are advised by Marcelo Worsley, assistant professor of computer science at Northwestern Engineering and assistant professor of learning sciences at SESP.

“I would love us to really, truly consider what safety means, and move toward a politik and practice of disruption against systems of harm,” Melo said. “Responsibility is often a word that is associated with tech ethics. How are we responsible to each other and to ‘the other,’ or those of us who are marginalized?”

The tech ethics initiative is championed by Sara Owsley Sood, Chookaszian Family Teaching Professor of Instruction and associate chair for undergraduate education, and Sarah Van Wart, adjunct assistant professor of computer science at Northwestern Engineering and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

Sara Owsley Sood“This is a perfect example of the lasting and impactful work that students can do in their time at Northwestern. I’ve been consistently impressed with the holistic approach that these students have taken, and their commitment to improving our educational programs,” Sood said.

The program currently includes four components working in parallel:

Throughout the year, the NU Tech Ethics program team strengthened connections with the faculty network through discussions at CS faculty and diversity committee meetings, regular strategy sessions with CS faculty of instruction, and a presentation during a Northwestern Center for Engineering Education Research faculty workshop on embedding ethics into courses.

The team also sought guidance and knowledge from a broad group of experts in this field, including Kevin Lin, assistant teaching professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington; Kiran Bhardwaj, instructor in philosophy and religious studies and member of the ethi{CS} project at Phillips Academy, Andover; and Michael Skirpan, executive director of Community Forge and special faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The NU Tech Ethics program is a bunch of branches that have split apart and come together in beautiful ways. It's all part of this broader ecosystem that we've been working on,” Chávez said. “Learning to think more broadly and feel more collectively is something I really want folks to get out of being in this space.”

Computing, Ethics, and Society

With support from The Alumnae of Northwestern University Curriculum Innovation Awards, the Computing, Ethics, and Society course was originally co-developed by Van Wart, Melo, computer science graduates Olivia Gallager (’21) and Caryl Henry (’21), and Sepehr Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences in SESP and director of the Technology, Race, Ethics, and Equity in Education (TREE) Lab. The course was first offered in fall 2020 and subsequently in winter and fall 2021.

“This was the one class in all of computer science — at least at the time — that talked about race and identity,” said Melo, who also served as the course’s first teaching assistant. “Something about this class really resonates with students in a different way. You can just tell by how many people are still involved even beyond the course. It hits different, and it's very meaningful.”

In 2022, after Van Wart announced she was taking a new position at the University of North Carolina Asheville, she and several students began co-organizing meetings. Initially, the discussions centered around how to sustain the course, but quickly broadened to address the larger need for ethical conversations to be integrated directly into the CS curriculum, not just offered as a standalone elective.

“The very first meeting I attended in fall 2022, we were talking about all of our goals and dreams for the department,” Chávez said. “From there, it grew into this concentrated effort. They're no longer dreams – they’re goals now.”

The group petitioned the Department of Computer Science to reinstate the Computing, Ethics, and Society course and demonstrated its importance and outcomes, including inspiring working groups and increasing participation in the Responsible AI Student Organization (RAISO), a group dedicated to the ethics, diversity, and social impacts of artificial intelligence and modern technology.

Sood approached Chávez and Melo to take on the role of course instructors for the spring 2023 quarter. Seventy students are enrolled in the course this term –50 seats were reserved for computer science students (with 10 slots for graduate students) and 20 total spots were reserved for SESP students.

“The revival of this class would not have happened without Sara Sood,” Melo said. “Avery worked tirelessly to help us put things into action and Sara has been the fierce advocate we've needed.”

While the overarching goals of the course remained consistent, Chávez and Melo combined their strengths and experience to make the course their own. Melo shared her institutional memory as a founder of the course. Chávez, formerly a faculty member and instructor in computer science at the University of Rhode Island, drew on their previous experience teaching computing ethics.

They updated the learning objectives and curated readings from first person perspectives on topics including unintended consequences, disability justice, and non-human centered design. Building on an idea Vakil developed, students keep “identity journals” to reflect on how the course topics relate to their experiences and identity. The journals also help Chávez and Melo get to know the students individually, which is a challenge in large classes.

“Collaborating with our different expertise, we have been able to really bring the course to a new level. Natalie knew the points of tension that arose in previous iterations, what stuck, what didn't, and how things could be scaffolded more or better,” Chávez said. “Also, the fact that Natalie and I have lived experiences that previous instructors didn't necessarily have is powerful, because the way we're able to relate to the students and the material is really different.”

Chávez and Melo maintained the virtual format of the discussion-based course and implemented an idea Chávez learned from Stacy Branham at the University of California, Irvine. On the first day of class, students self-select “learning pods” of four to five students that meet consistently in breakout rooms throughout the term.

“We try to be so intentional in the activities that we're doing and how we ask students to share and be in community with each other,” Chávez said. “The learning pods have been a valuable space. The conversations do get intense and personal and having a rapport established is important.”

Chávez and Melo also noted that Zoom’s chat function has been a fruitful space of dialogue, learning, and sharing during the course, with four or five different conversation threads proceeding at once.

“We had to learn how to be together and build community with one another virtually,” Melo said. “There's just so much that's happening, and it's been buzzing like that since the beginning.”

Building the team

(top L to R): Maya Blumovitz, Victoria C. Chávez, Kendall Clark (middle L to R): Shubhanshi Gaudani, Avery Keare, Natalie Araujo Melo (bottom R to L): Fai Poungpeth, Claire Schwartz, Carolyn Zou (not pictured: Frankie Lucco)

Building on the growing momentum within the department, Chávez, Keare, and Melo led the hiring process to expand the NU Tech Ethics team and start formally integrating ethics into the CS curriculum.

Keare and Fai Poungpeth, a first-year cognitive science and data science student in Weinberg, joined as Tech Ethics Mentors to oversee the project, including mapping out the program trajectory, curating resources, organizing meetings with CS faculty, and establishing a framework to ensure the program’s long-term sustainability.

Four Tech Ethics Fellows signed on to work throughout the 2022 winter quarter collaborating with the mentors and CS faculty members to develop ethics modules, lecture additions, and homework extensions for CS 111 and CS 214, and two additional fellows came onboard to help integrate and implement the materials this term.

Defining ethics

Once the team was assembled, a key order of business was to align around a cohesive conception of ethics and its application in the CS curriculum. The group discusses this frequently, but intentionally did not define ethics for the purpose of the initiative.

“We don't want to define ethics because we don't want to push one kind of epistemological or metaphysical framework onto students,” said Carolyn Zou, a third-year student in communication studies in Northwestern’s School of Communication with a concentration in computer science. “We want students to have the freedom to engage with ethics in a way that feels comfortable, effective, and applicable to what they want to do with their CS education.”

“We're focused on validating students’ agency to align their values and ethics with their actions,” said Keare, who is also a former RAISO education chair. “We want students to make ethical thinking a factor in their decision processes and choices going forward.”

Curriculum development

Keare and Poungpeth developed an ethics integration strategy built around a three-quarter cycle. The first quarter is focused on developing curriculum materials and discussing structure and implementation strategy with the faculty. The second quarter is the implementation phase, in which students engage with the material and the fellows receive feedback from students and professors. The third quarter is the maintenance phase, in which the team adjusts, refines lesson plans, and standardizes the content.

“The material that we created for each of the courses is very different, because we're trying to accommodate both the content that is being covered as well as the teaching style of the professors,” Poungpeth said.

CS 111

CS 111 is an introductory, core course on the fundamentals of computer programming required for students pursuing a CS major or minor. Sood instructs the course in spring and winter quarters. Connor Bain, assistant professor of instruction, teaches the fall quarter. A very large course, approximately 150 students are participating this spring and around 400 students typically enroll in the fall.

The CS 111 fellows team includes Maya Blumovitz, a fourth-year student pursuing a combined BS/MS in computer science at Northwestern Engineering, a cognitive science minor in Weinberg and a human-computer interaction certificate through the Center for Human-Computer Interaction + Design; Shubhanshi Gaudani, a third-year combined BS/MS student in computer science at Northwestern Engineering; and Zou. Blumovitz and Zou started working on CS 111 ethics curriculum last winter and Gaudani joined the team this quarter for the pilot implementation phase.

Blumovitz has an extensive computer science background. She began studying CS her second year of high school, and she also wrote C# and UNIX applications as a satellite operations manager serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

“I have taken a wide range of courses offered by the computer science department and, although some of them tried to talk about the ethical implications of code, it was often sidelined and seemed like an afterthought,” Blumovitz said. “And then I saw this initiative and realized I want to be at the forefront of this. I want to help students integrate this into their thinking as computer scientists that will go on to have a big impact on the world and be leaders in their field.”

Gaudani is a research assistant in the Delta Lab advised by Evey Huang, a fourth-year PhD student in the Technology and Social Behavior program, and Elizabeth Gerber, codirector of the Center for Human Computer Interaction + Design and professor of mechanical engineering and (by courtesy) computer science at Northwestern Engineering. Gerber is also a professor of communication studies at Northwestern’s School of Communication.

Zou has a humanities background; they transferred to Northwestern in 2021 from the film studies program at Boston University. During three years of a non-traditional online high school experience, Zou participated in competitive debate based around analytic and continental philosophy. They coached students in those theories as well, which helped prepare them for the challenge of integrating ethics into a technical education framework. A member of the Community Data Science Collective, Zou currently researches social computing with adviser by Aaron Shaw, professor of communication studies at Northwestern’s School of Communication.

“There is a great interest among CS students to be ethically aligned and to do work that feels right to them. But there is a lack of resources to find out what that means, and how best to get there,” Zou said.

As a gateway into the rest of the CS curriculum, CS 111 is an opportune setting to introduce students to a wide range of ethical concepts and lay the groundwork for ethical decision making.

The ethics curriculum took shape around the modular structure of the course. The first week of CS 111, all students viewed a primer video Sood recorded that discusses how to think about ethics through the lens of stakeholder analysis and addresses issues like social media algorithms, data collection, and misinformation. In the following seven weeks, the fellows are leading ethics discussions on topics such as accessibility, identity, impact, labor, and sustainability, which students are required to sign up and attend at least once. The discussions are limited to 10 students and are separate from regularly scheduled class time. At the end of the quarter, students are required to write an individual or group reflection on how they've engaged with ethics over the quarter. Five percent of the grading rubric is based on completion of the CS 111 ethics component.

“Our goal is for students not to feel like ethics is tacked on, but that it is a fundamental part of their CS education,” Zou said. “How do we turn people's excitement about ethics into something that is very actionable for them?”

In week three, Blumovitz led a module on accountability. Ahead of the discussion, students were asked to listen to the Harvard Business Review podcast episode “What Went Wrong with the Boeing 737 Max?” Blumovitz divided the students into two groups, and asked one group to argue the position that Boeing was accountable for the plane crashes, and the other group offered the counterpoint.

“The students were really engaged,” Blumovitz said. “It seemed that they felt comfortable sharing their opinions, and I made an active effort to encourage open-ended interaction – that mattered more to me than the outline I had structured.”

During week eight, Zou will lead a labor ethics module exploring issues around how to mitigate harms caused by jobs replaced or augmented by AI and harms caused by the development of new technologies that require human feedback, such as reinforcement training for large language models.

The fellows embraced the challenge of incorporating ethics into the building blocks of programming.

“It's very hard to pin down these abstract concepts into something that is manageable for students but still meaningful and useful to them. We can't just slap a philosophy major on top of the CS 111 materials, so we arrived at a solution that emphasizes students thinking with their peers and with their friends about ethics,” said Zou, who attended the Embedded Ethics Conference: Strategies for Teaching Responsible Computing Within the Computer Science Curriculum in March.

“The conference was really insightful, because there are so many different ways that people are thinking about tech ethics across the country,” Zou said. “It gave us some scaffolding to build our programs and it also gave us the sense that there isn't one perfect way to do it.”

“It's definitely been a challenge to go from ideation to implementation, but now that we're past that, I'm really happy with where we've come,” Blumovitz said. “I think that we've done a really great job, and I’m excited to see where this goes.”

CS 214

CS 214 is another core course required for students pursuing a CS major or minor. Sruti Bhagavatula, assistant professor of instruction, is teaching the course during the ethics pilot this quarter. Associate professor of instruction Vincent St-Amour and Leif Rasmussen, a PhD candidate in computer science, also instruct the course. One hundred fifty-seven students are enrolled this spring.

The CS 214 fellows are Kendall Clark, a fourth-year student in the Brady Scholars Program for Ethics and Civic Life pursuing a bachelor’s degree in German and a minor in computer science in Weinberg; Frankie Lucco, a third-year computer science student in Weinberg; and Claire Schwartz, a second-year computer science student in Weinberg.

Clark and Lucco started planning and developing the CS 214 ethics curriculum last winter, and Schwartz joined for the implementation phase this spring.

To fit the linear, sequential structure of the course, the team decided the best approach for CS 214 was embedding ethical considerations into lecture additions and coursework extensions. The team compiled a bank of ideas that the instructors can draw from and weave into the lectures. The fellows also developed ethics-based examples that fit the technical theme of each homework assignment. Students are asked to write and submit a reflection with each assignment that helps students evaluate why they made certain design choices and whether they accounted for certain edge cases.

“CS 214 is very integral to the rest of the computer science curriculum at Northwestern. It's important that the students come away with a very strong and solid understanding of data structures and algorithms,” Clark said. “We wanted to do this in a way that is high stakes enough to emphasize the fact that ethics should not be an afterthought but be respectful of the fact that everything that's already in 214 still needs to be there."

In the CS 214 assignment focused on ranking, sorting, and binary heap data structures, for instance, the fellows provided examples of different ranking algorithms for the top 10 colleges in the US and asked the students to think critically about the ethical ramifications of design choices, the process of data collection, impacts to users, accountability, and personal bias. Students create a mapping API for the final project and are asked to write an explanation of why they chose to use certain data structures.

“That justification is important for understanding the efficiency of how the system works, but also takes the user into account,” Clark said. “Who can use this? What needs are being met by the program? What needs aren't being met? These are the sorts of questions we want to incorporate in tandem with the examples we brought to light in the homework.”

Van Wart taught the first programming class Clark took at Northwestern — COMP_SCI 110: Intro to Computer Programming for non-majors — and helped spark her interest in computer science ethics and the intersection of STEM, the humanities, and social sciences.

“As a developer, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that the technology we’re creating is not causing harm, and that the people who are using it are being taken into account.” Clark said. “The concepts discussed in class have practical implications that tie into people's well-being and social positionality. We're concentrating on developing critical thinking skills that help students apply their moral compass to their work.”

Clark explained that the process of integrating all the ethics materials into the class has been a challenge, and the pilot session this spring has been a learning process for the team to approach the implementation more iteratively to better balance the needs of faculty and students in the course.

“We're taking the time to actually do it well, as opposed to just jamming something into the class,” Clark said. “I’m really satisfied with how it's going, but I really wanted to see all of our ideas in action.”

Embedding ethics into tech curricula

As the ethics mentors and fellows grapple with how to ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiative, Keare is building a best practices resource hub she hopes will play a key role in the program’s continuity. Advised by Melo, Keare began working on the repository last winter as an independent study project.

“Our resource hub will hopefully show professors that it's easier than they think to embed ethics,” Keare said. “We have the resources to help professors, mentors, and fellows create more of a seamless integration and hit the ground running.”

The hub features the NU Tech Ethics framework for approaching ethical curricular interventions, including considering pedagogy in context, grounding technology in ethical critical thinking, and aligning action with values. Keare included curricular artifacts the team developed, such as the modules, training materials, and implementation suggestions. She is also compiling external examples of tech ethics integration and lesson materials designed by other institutions.

In the learning-focused section, Keare aims to build a collection of case studies, more in-depth examinations of ethical concepts, and definitions of key terms. These materials are geared to inspire students and instructors to question their power, positionality, and agency related to technology. The hub will also be a space for discussion.

“We plan to start a Google group to inspire further conversation and connection within this tech ethics ecosystem at Northwestern and beyond it,” Keare said.

Challenges and looking ahead

By the end of 2024, the NU Tech Ethics mentors and fellows aim to incorporate CS 110 and COMP_SCI 349: Machine Learning into the program through a staggered rollout. This fall, the team will work to develop curricular material for CS 349 and implement it in the winter, while material is developed for CS 110, to be piloted in the spring.

In addition, the pedagogical resource hub has already informed professors’ efforts to integrate ethics into the COMP_ENG 366, 466: Embedded Systems and COMP_SCI 396: Natural & Artificial Vision courses. In the coming year, the program is looking to further strengthen connections with the faculty network and assist in the creation of ethics materials across the CS curriculum.

“By that point we hope that ethics isn't something that we're just introducing at the beginning or in the elective level but is a through line from the intro courses to the core courses to electives,” Keare said.

Long-term, the team has discussed the idea of rolling the ethics component into the existing peer mentor program — or a supplementary ethics peer mentor group — so students that have gone through the ethics curriculum in CS 111 and CS 214 can continue as peer mentors that can manage the ethics discussions and modules.

“Our goal is to continue and expand the ethics program into every computer science course,” Blumovitz said. “We want to spread this throughout the entire curriculum. There are big ideas for the future.”

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