Standing before my undergraduate software engineering classes on September 12, I realized I didnt have any lesson plans that were an appropriate response to the events that had been unfolding for the previous 24 hours.
I had already posted an appeal on the class Web site, which said in part:
How can we defend freedom?
By refusing to give in to fear or despair or hatred
By not over-reacting with extremes of suspicion and repression
By doubling our efforts to improve the lot of all our fellow citizens of this world
I believe this is exactly the time we should all apply ourselves so we are equipped to defend freedom.
That means strengthening our minds as well as our spirits.
Now I stood before these 20-year-olds and began to speak of being on task. I wanted to convey a sense of how software professionals could offer positive responses amid so much senseless tragedy.
One immediate action was to scrap the overly prescriptive
topic I had assigned for their semester-long project. Rather than expecting
each five-student team to work on the same rather mundane application,
I challenged them to consider projects that could really help
people in need and make a difference.
Our enemies, I claimed, are ignorance, prejudice, and hatred.
I urged them to think of
possibilities, to stretch for a more meaningful application.
The students responded with suitable idealism in their proposals. One team chose to design a database system for a disaster-relief agency, informing potential donors of needs and directing contributions to the nearest appropriate collection center. Another team undertook a blood-bank management system that the local hospital might use. Yet another worked on a teaching program with basic nutritional information.
Some students planned an imaginative stereotype blasteran educational program to provide factual responses that could dispel preconceived notions about the beliefs and practices of an unfamiliar ethnic group.
Others worked on an advisory system to address the basic question: Why cant we get along? Their approach was to determine an individuals personality traits and then provide advice on ways to adjust that style in dealing with others who have different traits.
The classroom took on more immediacy in the days that followed. I have always employed case studies, typically ripped from the headlines of recent events. Even though the headlines were often numbingly negative, there were a number of real-world problems and proposed solutions with both relevance and learning potential.
Software was being touted as a possible means of aiding air-travel security in applications such as biometrics for confirming the identity of passengers or computerized pattern recognition to identify weapons hidden in baggage or under clothing.
Should airliners be equipped with advanced autopilot systems that would allow hands-off automated landings, disabling manual controls if hijackers sought to take control? Or, alternatively, should designers pursue the goal of a cutover to ground-based remote control of planes in distress? Both options posed technical difficulties and even more fundamental concerns of the cure being worse than the disease.
We had just discussed a proposal from a British doctor to equip hospital operating rooms with the equivalent of aircraft black boxes to monitor surgical operations. Having had a compare-and-contrast discussion on monitoring the conditions of aircraft in flight and patients in surgery, within weeks we were examining a proposal that low-orbit earth satellites be configured to provide real-time monitoring of airliners.
Tradeoffs of privacy vs. security also suddenly became of
far more than theoretical interest, as various media sources recounted
the pros and cons of proposals from law-enforcement
I provided the students new links almost daily to passionate advocates:
Dont make privacy the next victim of terror.
The United States is bringing in new measures to monitor Internet traffic. But taming the Web is not the way to disarm terrorists.
Are we in danger of sacrificing essential liberties in a vain hope of improving security? Are we trying to win an attack on freedom by attacking that freedom ourselves? Can security be improved without privacy invasion?
If America is to fight a prolonged war against terrorism, as George Bush has promised, the true frontline may be at home. Among the biggest casualties may be civil liberties and privacy.
My saddest link was to the Web site of a colleague who was on one of the flights hijacked out of Boston. The entire collection was offered to the students in a folder entitled Aftermath of a Tragedy.
It was sobering, but it put these college students in contact with real people and their real struggles. It has allowed us to work through practical issues with both strong feelings and intellectual discipline.
Thats what education is supposed to do, isnt it?