Why Teach Grand Challenges in ICT?

I don’t normally drop in huge bits of texts from previous posts, but there are the NSF Committee for Cyberinfrastructure Task Force Grand Challenges, and their translation.

  1. Advanced Computational Methods and Algorithms
  2. High Performance Computing
  3. Software Infrastructure
  4. Data and Visualisation
  5. Education, Training and Workforce Development
  6. Grand Challenge Communities.

The same list in simpler, discipline free, terms:

  1. Better methods for solving hard problems.
  2. Big machines for solving hard problems.
  3. Good systems to run on the big machines, to support the better methods.
  4. Ways to see what results we have – people can see the results to make better decisions.
  5. Training people to make steps 1-4 work.
  6. Bring people together to make 1-5 work better with greater efficiency.

Why teach our students about these? Because they form the goals that we, as a discipline, will be striving for over the next few decades. Most of the items on this list are really, really hard to achieve. In explaining what we do, why we’re doing it, in tying our teaching into our professional practices and in giving authenticity to our entire educational approach – we need something large to aim at.

As an educator, knowing about the grand challenges in your own discipline shapes your ‘essential’ reading, gives you a hook to hang your lessons on and gives you, if we’re really waxing lyrical, a star to steer by. We all have something like this in our respective fields and it helps to show the overall direction and intention of our field.

This context shapes the things that you teach, the way that you teach and helps to ground students inside the professional aspects of what you’re talking about. It also helps you address those “Yes, but what use is this?” questions that beset us all.

It also sets our eyes up and out towards the horizon, to where the clouds, the sea, the sun and the sky fuse together and give us fantastic visions of what could be.

2 Comments on “Why Teach Grand Challenges in ICT?”

  1. billb says:

    I thought about asking this question the first time you posted the list, but I didn’t post it for some reason: How big an influence on what you do does the NSF have? What about other national or supra-national research funding bodies like the EU?

    As an USAian researcher, I feel like NSF and other US-based funding agencies have a pretty large influence on what we pursue, but that bodies outside the US have pretty low influence which borders on none at all. I’m reasonably sure that this isn’t a good thing.


    • nickfalkner says:

      We look across the world to see what’s going on but, while we don’t necessarily always go in the same direction, the US ICT community are always worth looking at. We also look at the UK and EU as well. The publications of large population, relatively similar countries are always an interesting resource.

      The EU is a fascinating community in many ways because of the inherent diversity and combined population. I’ve regularly used their continent-level scheme documents before now.


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