Carnegie Mellon University

Buzzworthy Classes in the Dietrich College

October 30, 2017

The Newest Buzzworthy Classes in the Dietrich College

By Stefanie Johndrow

There’s a lot to discover in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

As Dietrich College Dean Richard Scheines has said, “From creative writing to cognitive psychology, ethics, history and public policy and information systems, you have a veritable intellectual feast in front of you. My message? Eat in zest and sample to whole buffet.”

Each year, instructors are creating new and innovative courses that keep up with current events and look to the future. Here is a sample of the latest cool classes that Dietrich College students are taking.

Artificial Intelligence and Humanity

Taught by Jennifer Keating, assistant dean for educational initiative in the Dietrich College, and Illah Nourbakhsh, AI and Humanity is a Grand Challenge Interdisciplinary Freshman Seminar. These courses are designed to create educational experiences that focus on tough societal problems. AI and Humanity embraces the bond between the humanities and computer science by addressing what it means to be human in the context of a rapidly advancing technological age. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the future of human-to-machine relationships. 

“I believe one important way universities can help forge common ground is by breaking traditional disciplinary barriers,” said Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics in the School of Computer Science. “This class excites because it takes on issues that are truly consequential to our society—labor, equity, agency, bias and such—and creates a space in which first-year students from two very different CMU schools engage with one-another in understanding how our past helps us evaluate the future.” 

A different point-of-view is why computer science freshman Michael Huang signed up for the course. 

“I decided to take the class because I thought it would add an interesting new perspective to my interests in machine learning,” Huang said. “So far, my favorite aspect of the class would be the diversity of source materials, from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography to Star Trek episodes, each source contributed interesting implications and ideas for future society that I hadn't considered before.”

The variety is also what attracted Rebecca Zheng, a Dietrich College freshman, to sign up for it. 

“Not only do we talk about artificial intelligence in general, but we extend to discussing the implications of AI on labor, economics, and society,” Zheng said. “It has changed the way I view the world and made me more aware of how technology impacts everyday life.”

Bubbles: Big Data for Human Minds

Bubbles is taught by Simon DeDeoBubbles— such as the market bubble behind the 2008 housing crash, to contemporary information and social bubbles created by social media sites like Facebook—are a basic feature of modern life. To make sense of them, people need to understand basic social science questions about what they believe, where ideas come from and how to measure consequences. Bubbles, taught by Simon DeDeo, requires students to walk in with a willingness and initiative to work with real-world data.

“We get students out in the wild as soon as we can, looking for real-world examples of the theories we cover in class,” said DeDeo, assistant professor of social and decision sciences. “The discoveries they bring back are fantastic: analyses of everything from meme-factories on Reddit to the rise and fall of TV show plot devices, information cascades among sports commentators, the psychology of conspiracy theorists, and the effect of our president’s tweets on stock market volatility.” 

The course covers topics ranging from literary fads to revolutions, with examples ranging from the novels of Jane Austen to the algorithms underlying cryptocurrencies such as BitCoin

“I decided to take Bubbles because I wanted to get exposure to and experience with big data analysis,” said Anne Widom, a senior majoring in psychology. “My favorite thing about the class is that just a few weeks in I've already learned how to run some preliminary data analysis on texts and find interesting results, but that there is always a non coding option that is similarly interesting for those with less experience coding.” 

Widom continued, “Additionally I love that every lecture is extremely engaging and that Professor DeDeo encourages creativity in all of our assignments.” 

Climate Change

Another Grand Challenge seminar, this class aims to answer what climate change is, how scientists know it’s happening, why there’s so much public debate over it, what solutions are available and determine the pros and cons of those solutions. Tackling these questions is a three-professor job, with Peter Adams, Kasia Snyder and James Wynn instructing.

“I wanted to teach this course because to me proliferating knowledge and understanding, especially amongst young people, of how big and hard won a step forward the global climate agreement—the Paris Agreement—was and what exactly is its nature is the most meaningful follow up a negotiator can pursue outside the UN process,” said Snyder, an adjunct instructor in the Dietrich College.

Interested in exploring the challenges and complexities of climate change, CIT freshman Nickia Muraskin has found that the course offers a valuable perspective.

“The Climate Change Seminar goes beyond the problem-solution construct typical of engineering so that we understand the complexities of the issue in the context of the real world,” Muraskin said. “I enjoy the experience of discussing a global issue with other students of diverse backgrounds, in particular because of the relevance climate change has to our futures and how it relates to current political events.” 

Having the opportunity to teach students who are delving into this topic with this interdisciplinary approach is Wynn’s favorite part of the course. 

“These students are just starting off on their intellectual explorations,” said Wynn, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate studies in the English Department. “They offer unique insight on what it is like to explore rhetoric and the rhetorical dimensions of climate change for first time.”

Investigating the topic with experts from different backgrounds and angles including, scientific, political, rhetorical, cultural, economic, technological and ethical, Adams is learning alongside the students. 

“One great thing about teaching this course is the interdisciplinary nature of the material and the lineup of the instructors,” said Adams, a professor in the College of Engineering’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Engineering and Public Policy Department. “It’s unique to have a rhetorician, climate negotiator, and a scientist co-teaching. I love teaching with James and Kasia because I end up learning so much. Also, it’s fun to tell my engineering colleagues that I have to go read Aristotle’s Rhetoric for next week’s class.”

A freshman in the Science and Humanities Scholars program, Jacob Feldgoise agrees that the teaching trio makes the course work. 

"Dietrich College’s new Climate Change course is so fantastic because it’s truly interdisciplinary,” Feldgoise said. “Alongside classmates who show the intellectual diversity of CMU’s student body, I get to learn from professors who specialize in three distinct fields that impact climate change: engineering, rhetoric, and public policy. I applied to CMU hoping to study the interaction between these disciplines, but I never expected to find that intersection within my first year, let alone my first semester."

Above: Jennifer Keating and Illah Nourbakhsh teaching Artificial Intelligence and Humanity.
Left: Students in Simon DeDeo’s Bubbles class developed polarized views on the weight of a blue whale, when they’re placed on a network. Image courtesy of DeDeo.