Computer Scientists for Future
Computer Science for Future (CS4F) is an initiative of the Department of Computer Science at HAW Hamburg (University of Applied Science Hamburg). It is working towards establishing the UN sustainability development goals (SDG) as a major guiding principle for teaching and research. CS4F focuses strongly on teaching at university level to educate future generations of technical experts and decision-makers. It pursues different goals, which we divide into three areas – teaching, research, and transfer – as illustrated in the figure below. In this article, we introduce the CS4F initiative and reflect primarily on the role of students as amplifiers in transforming computer science.
Computer science as a cross-sectional discipline
Computer science (CS) has steadily gained in its impact on how society has developed over the past decade. In a progressively granularly networked and automated world, the infrastructure of coexistence is determined by decisions in CS that shape processes in companies, determine modes of interaction in society, and develop services related to how goods are handled. CS should therefore be systematically put at the service of the UN SDG.
Computational sustainability already touches on sustainability issues based on three computational themes: optimisation, dynamic models, and simulation (Gomes, 2019).
Empowering students to work
with different disciplines
based on common values
and being aware of their role
as makers of (societal) change
is essential for developing
solutions to future challenges
It acknowledges the need for interdisciplinary work with specialists from other domains such as social, environmental, and natural science. Courses in CS and society are already offered at universities, and the interdisciplinary view is often trained in software engineering. However, the academic consensus that CS deals with socio-technical systems and not merely with mathematical-technical systems has not permeated the curriculum sufficiently. Empowering students to work with different disciplines based on common values and being aware of their role as makers of (societal) change is essential for developing solutions to future challenges and crises.
In this context, teaching is the essential lever that triggers activities in the other subareas of research and transfer. CS4F influences teaching [see Figure 1] in a wide range of sustainability topics, such as climate protection, ethics, or future security. Teaching then influences research and transfer in the given societal context (e.g., other universities, companies, or activists). Research questions can arise from teaching issues and can be solved within the framework of ‹research-based learning›. The transfer is then achieved by the teaching directly influencing the graduates, who then take the knowledge of the connections between informatics and sustainability into their future professions. For example, there is a gap between the importance of data for social issues and the consideration of ethics and sustainability in their processing and use. These aspects tend to be neglected in CS curricula. With CS4F, the Department of Computer Science at HAW Hamburg is working towards closing such teaching gaps; a significant place in the curriculum is devoted to teaching ethics and sustainability aspects and the ability to adopt different perspectives. This shift will help to set off a process towards a more sustainable orientation, in line with the UN SDG. One of CS4F’s main objectives is to strengthen motivation and problem awareness among students.
Teaching as a multiplier
Teaching is a strong multiplier as the students can put the sustainable approaches from their studies into practice once they enter the academic or professional field. CS4F uses two main methods for learning and innovation in education:
- inquiry-based learning and
- transformative science
Inquiry-based learning puts teachers in the role of learning coaches (Krause-Steger and Roski, 2019) and focuses on sustainable development and concrete problem-solving (Lingenau and Ahel, 2019).
puts teachers in the role
of learning coaches
and focuses on
and concrete problem-solving.
Digitalisation and education for sustainable development in higher education needs such teaching/learning formats to provide students with the competencies required to solve currently unknown problems of the future (Lingenau and Ahel, 2019). Inquiry-based learning combines collaborative learning processes that include learning and knowledge achieved in non-hierarchical groups and the skills of handling complexity and uncertainty and of reflective questioning. The goal of transformative science is to describe, explain, and evaluate transformations towards a sustainable society, but also to advocate for them (WBGU, 2011). Embedding such processes requires systemic thinking, concrete questions, and transdisciplinary ways of working. The real-world
relevance and the inclusion of different, also non-academic experts’ and others’ voices favours research and learning formats such as workshops, real labs, or field experiments. For CS, this science means strengthening agile and incremental approaches and involving civil society and non-academic actors.
Existing structures must be strengthened and expanded. Examples such as the interdisciplinary laboratory ‹Creative Space For Technical Innovations› (CSTI) at HAW Hamburg have founded their work on research-based teaching principles and realworld experiments and are thus a key point of reference for the desired transformation.
Exploration of different approaches through s4f
The goal of CS4F is to integrate the UN SDG into every course of the curriculum. This lengthy process has been kicked off by creating new courses and teaching content for existing courses.
We have held 10 elective courses in the subject area of CS4F in the last two semesters and started to adapt the required courses. Notable cases are:
- ‹Fundamentals of Computer Engineering› (Year 1) was expanded to include interdisciplinary concepts. Concepts from sociology illustrate the contrast between solutionism and technology criticism. In addition, a basic overview of ethics was integrated. This overview included an introduction to various ethical theories, such as contractualism, autonomy orientation, and John Rawls’ modern contract theory, and how these concepts relate to CS.
- ‹Fundamentals of Computer Science› (Year 1) has been extended to include sustainable software development: The creation of software that is sustainable and resource-efficient in the long term and considers not only technical aspects but also social, ecological, and economic factors. CO2 emissions associated with using information and communication technology systems are a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. By implementing CO2-conscious computing practices, businesses, governments, and individuals can help reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a more sustainable future.
- ‹Applied Computer Science› (Year 2) teaches programming graph theory and graph algorithms. These algorithms are used to analyse and optimise complex systems in areas such as transportation, energy, and communication. The lab provides practice in implementing such algorithms, but students also learn to make their design decisions consciously and communicate them appropriately. They are expected to learn about the potential impact of their work on society and to use ethical guidelines from the ‹Gesellschaft für Informatik› (German Informatics Society) to address ethical decisions and be aware of the potential consequences.
- ‹Wisst Ihr, was Ihr tut?› (‹Do you know, what you are doing?›) is an elective seminar open to students from all areas of CS studying at HAW Hamburg. The course offers guided reflections on the far-reaching effects of CS in all areas of life, starting with communication behaviour and ending with organisational upheavals and the role of CS as a trigger or amplifier of change. The course is held by an interdisciplinary team from sociology, urban research, psychology, and CS/robotics. Participants are expected to engage actively in this dispute, to take a position, and to have a reflected understanding of themselves in their role as computer scientists at the end.
The CS4F framework is conceptualised as an open platform for students and teachers to create and experiment with new courses, projects, and learning formats that integrate sustainability issues, transdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary thinking, and concrete projects tackling sustainability issues in or from CS.
To accompany the project in its various phases, a podcast was initiated that is run by students, professors, and employees of the university. In each episode, the team talks to activists, experts, and scientists about climate change mitigation and sustainability in the context of CS, as well as discussions about ethical issues surrounding the impact of technology on society. The goal is not to make the podcast primarily for insiders but to introduce any listener to the topics. It also focuses less on persuasion and more on supplying broad information about how CS works and what impact CS can have on society.
These courses, the podcast, and other activities are the first results at our university. The created activities within this framework are promising and could develop into a solid path outlining how to integrate sustainability issues in educating future computer scientists and thus affecting the way these students act as professionals in their respective fields.
A long version of this article is available under: Eickstädt, E., Becke, M., Kohler, M., & Padberg, J. (2023). Computer Science for Future – Sustainability and Climate Protection in the Computer Science Courses of the HAW Hamburg (arXiv:2301.06885). arXiv. https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2301.06885Next page