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Interview with University of Limerick

05 May 2021

Gordon D’Arcy, Brand Ambassador with Brightwater is in conversation with Professor Tiziana Margaria, Co-Director of BSc/MSc Immersive Software Engineering with UL and Mr J.J. Collins, of the University of Limerick

GD: Hi everybody, my name is Gordon D’Arcy, and today I am talking to two very interesting people from the University of Limerick. I am talking with Tiziana Margaria who is a Professor and also a Course Director and J.J. Collins who is a lecturer and the Head of Residency for the ISC course, both in the University of Limerick. This is following on from a really exciting announcement last week for what is a truly disruptive computer science programme coming on stream in September 2022. This is really a world first in this space. So, good afternoon and thank you both for your time.

Prof. TM: Thank you Gordon, it is a pleasure to join you.

JJ.C:  Thank you, Gordon, it’s a great opportunity to talk with you.

GD: So guys, the best place to start is with the course itself. Where did the course come from and really, why?

Prof. TM: The idea of ISC actually came from an attempt to change completely the structure of computer science education in Ireland and also elsewhere. It started with the question, “what would you do if you had the freedom to change completely the computer science experience for the students but also for the companies and also for society?” So, to ask, it came actually from a point of view of why? Why should we do it? And the reason actually behind all of this, is of relevance. It’s a relevant question. The relevance of computer science to society, software engineering and computer science in general are everywhere and they are extremely under-represented in terms of the attention that they get in the media but also in the choice of careers and education. For the individuals as well, because it is the relevance of what is taught to the students at any time in their education and professional path. Here we are going to do it in a completely different way. Instead of going through a curriculum and then you are going to able to solve something, we start with a problem, a challenge, solve it basically by pulling, by learning the principles, the methods and the techniques. So, design, evaluate, try it out, evaluate again and so on, it is really a complete inside out way from the traditional way of educating computer science students.  

GD: That’s really interesting and I think, so valuable, because computer science, data science, every part of that is really starting to penetrate every aspect of society. Traditional businesses are having to adapt and evolve so I suppose, the university and education is no different.

GD: It’s a great overview of the course and why it arrived but what will the course look like and how will it differ from the typical CS programmes offered by other universities?

JJ.C: I can answer that, Gordon, by talking about some of the ISC design principles and the key word is immersion.  We achieved this by (1) producing residencies that constitute 45% of the course and these are professional practice distributed throughout the 4 years. They’re very different from traditional academic internships with discipline specific learning outcomes. I’ll talk a little more about that later. Secondly, it’s an accelerated programme with an MSc after 4 years and each academic year is a 40 week calendar so students are very immersed, both when they’re on campus and off-campus in residencies. Thirdly, studio based learning, following principles of learning by doing; problem based learning where we have students working on thorny problems in teams 24/7 and these are hot-houses of creativity and innovation. Then we have block-based teaching when they’re on campus and this is much more immersive and intensive and accelerated compared to a traditional under-graduate experience. Then we have integrated teaching and research tracks so we’re dismantling that barrier between research activity and teaching.

GD: It sounds very intuitive when you describe it like that. It seems quite simplistic. But residences are not something that you would traditionally associate with a CS programme. So will the residencies actually look like?

JJ.C: So when thinking about what innovations we can add to computer science education with an under-graduate context, how can we be transformative, and what paradigm shifts can we bring, not for the sake of change but for the sake of adding significant value to the student experience. The core of that is residencies. If you think about medical education, nursing education, teaching education; all of these professions engage in professional practice by going on residency or placement. So, we want to take that concept and apply it in the context of computer science education and in a software engineering context. It advances internships or co-op programmes for each of our residencies disciplinary specific learning outcomes. For example, in our first residency, students are on-boarding and learning to work with enterprise development environments on enterprise architectures. There are five residencies and on residency 5 in year 4, they’re conducting research and development programmes on company sponsored concepts. During residencies, our students are solving thorny software engineering problems and will be embedded on agile teams. Going back to the, say for example, medical education, when a trainee doctor goes on a surgical residency, they’re expected to have done an appendectomy, I assume, and when they go on an orthopaedic residency, likewise expected to participate in a hip replacement. Likewise, we have the sector specific learning outcomes for each of our five residencies.

GD: That’s fantastic and what an offering to be able to provide to students. Then, the quality of students and the quality of the internships will naturally start to feed off each other and as they both evolve and grow, more companies will probably want to participate in that.

GD: This leads me on to my next question and our next topic which is the backing of some of the world’s most innovative software houses. You’re talking about the likes of Stripe, Intercom, Workday, Zalando, Manna Aero, to name but a few of them and state agencies such as IDA and Enterprise Ireland. What do you think attracted these huge names to partner with UL on this programme?

Prof. TM: Well, it is the vision that we actually constructed together so it’s not that UL came up with an idea in isolation and that the companies were won. It is actually very much a ping-pong sort of co-development and co-design of something that is really fundamentally transformative and innovative. We could call it a paradigm shift in computer science education. The point there is the fundamentally different approach which really goes from a different concept, a different philosophy of this immersive, studio-based, learn-by-doing approach with a lot of theory embedded, of course, because you need to know what you are going to do and why and with a lot of relevance for the students because of these projects. There are projects all the time, also when they are on-campus and not just when they are in the companies. So, the difference that it makes is actually the maturity of the students. Because they are going to be used to go through a much larger variety of technologies and concepts, how to connect the dots, how to problem-solve, let’s say complex, under-defined situations, they will have a completely different maturity when they join the workforce after two years of already having worked in a number of companies, residencies (there are five of them). They are going through 2 or 3 different companies in different sectors and after basically having mastered a Black Belt in a large variety of situations and learning situations in particular.

GD: That’s really interesting and I think probably this course has been, the quality, the computer science IQ of graduates that have been coming up has been increasing  and increasing as technology has advanced. It’s almost like a calling for some people so this course obviously, it’s meeting a need that is there because the quality of the entrants is so high already. The challenge you can see maybe from some of the names of the companies that we talked about earlier is that they’ve experienced a path like this where this is what they would have liked in university.

GD: Now you have benchmarked yourselves against some of the best computer science programmes in the world and gone beyond that in what you offer, JJ, as you’ve alluded to with a Masters degree completed within 4 years which offers residency. What will be the major differences in graduating from this computer science degree compared to a normal degree with a Masters programme?

Prof. TM: Well, if I can take that one, we see the maturity, the range and depth of experience, the confidence that they gain in the field, on campus and in the companies. They basically play in the league of this kind of company half of the time. They don’t just train in the classroom in the hope of going out in the field, they are in the field and part of those teams. We think that this is going to be extremely attractive, also in terms of a different portfolio of competencies that the students are going to bring into the classroom, (which is not a classroom, it’s a studio) into the study that they are going to do, and also into the companies.

That’s also the reason why, for example, that the admission is not only about the CAO points but also by means of a portfolio. There is going to be a much wider catchment of criteria that we will consider in order to see whether a student who wants to become a computer scientist or somebody who didn’t think about becoming a computer scientist but would like to try this immersive software engineering path, whether they have the right mentality, the right engagement for going into this intensive experience.

GD: That word that keeps coming up again is that “experience” and providing that real world experience to people who are studying. We know how well that has succeeded in other traditional crafts and this is no different. It’s becoming almost like a core word for some people.  One of the things that you talked about there is that it’s not just about the CAO points or the traditional grading in that way and will be about that portfolio. Is it important to attract females into this course and indeed keep attracting younger people into STEM particularly in the female category? Do you think this might benefit the course? How important is it to attract a gender balance in this course?

JJ.C:  Going through that very impressive list of industry partners that are going to provide or will act as hosts for residences, one of the key issues for them is trying to achieve a better gender balance and they have asked us to make this centre on our radar and bring a lot of focus onto this. That will definitely be the case. Examples of this, so our department Computer Science & Information Systems in UL have recently submitted an application to Athena SWAN and that has been successful. That recognises the significant work over the last decade in striving towards better gender balance.

Secondly, the portfolio that we’ve talked about, this is a mechanism that will appeal to more diverse audiences and to provide alternative pathways other than just primarily through the CAO into software engineering.

Thirdly, the culture practice in ISC, the language we adopt, for example when we thought about the names for the modules, we have subjects such as “Solving Problems with Computers” rather than your traditional names that are technology oriented. Life as a student will provide, it will be exemplar for people how day to day experiences organised and lived with in studio-based environments in which the focus will be on solving real world problems that will make a difference in society, in communities and the individual. Active recruitment in faculty, researchers to make sure we have excellent gender balance and work in promoting computing and software engineering as a third level option and particularly in ISC.

GD: That’s fantastic. I think the more females that can become involved in STEM, the gender balance, there are so many positives that will come from that.

GD: Just to wrap up, we said at the start, this is really at the vanguard of education, particularly in computer science and that kind of virtuous circle that you’re hoping to create. Do you think that other universities will follow suit? Will other universities try and follow what UL has done with this type of course?

Prof. TM: Well, we think that many universities will also try and follow suit, definitely in Ireland but also abroad. This is really the best of the best with the residency concept on top, this is really peculiar to us and several other elements that we don’t have time to explain but there is more involved in it. The important part is the level of support that this course has, which is, of course, well beyond the typical level of support for the students and for everybody that you find in a normal HEA funded course. This can only work in a strong partnership and the strong partnership that we have in a sort of applied public/private partnership with the companies and that’s why it’s so important to have this eco-system, as I call it, of co-creation and co-design that is the partnership example that we have. We have more companies right now than we had at the announcement time and we are getting contacted.

I’m just off a call with another big company right now because the word is spreading so we really hope in this way, that we’re doing something really exceptional for the students in Ireland for the diversity of the profession, in order to establish software engineering as one of the absolutely crucial, absolutely central and desirable professions, like many others, like lawyers, architects and doctors etc. So, a software engineer, as I call it, will be the brain doctor of this system, the brain surgeon of the system so it is definitely not less important and we really hope to put Limerick and Ireland very central in the landscape of future education in CS, globally, not just in the country.

GD: Absolutely. I just want to say, just to wrap up, thank you both for your time this morning. I’ve been speaking with Professor Tiziana Margaria who is the Course Director and JJ. Collins who is the Head of Residency for the ISC course in  University of Limerick. I spent a little bit of time in the University of Limerick, more from a rugby perspective, doing a little bit of training down there, probably 20 years ago and the facilities are really top quality. So as well as this being an innovative and disruptive course, this is putting the University of Limerick on the map which is a phenomenal university. I wish you the very best of luck with the course. September 22 can’t come around soon enough so thank you both for your time today.

JJ.C: Thank you very much, Gordon, it’s a pleasure talking to you.

Prof.TM: Thank you, Gordon, next time hopefully.