CCI Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Combines Passion for Creativity and Computing

Brian Smith

In July 2018, Brian Smith became the Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI). Prior to joining CCI’s leadership team, Smith was a Professor in the School of Education’s Learning Technologies Program. Smith has a palpable passion for creativity and innovation, and his professional background has included stints at both the National Science Foundation and the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to his role as Senior Associate Dean, Smith is also a faculty member in the Information Science department. He sat down with us to answer some questions about his career path, how he has managed to blend his interests in art and technology, and his vision for the future at CCI.

What excites you most about your position at CCI?

Figuring out how to stay at the forefront of educating people in areas that change every other day is an exciting challenge. Imagine that you and your parents went to the same university twenty years apart. In some ways, many general education classes you take would likely be the same. But if you’re taking computer and information science classes, a lot of it looks wildly different than it did twenty years ago. So it's fun to teach in disciplines that are constantly evolving. Another thing I’m excited about is how to help build the culture at CCI and move us forward as a college.

What would you say a healthy college culture looks like, and how do you see us moving in that direction?

A healthy culture is one where people aren’t just clocking in and out, but instead continuing to collaborate and innovate outside of the classroom. Everyone in the CCI community has valuable knowledge and insights to contribute, and I hope to keep building a learning community with strong interactions between students, faculty, and staff. I think our college will be a lot tighter-knit with opportunities for more of those interactions once we get into our new building at 3675. When people are all in the same space and there’s a vibrant energy, I think there will be a collapsing of boundaries, and I’m looking forward to starting to see more collaboration across the college.

You earned a BS in Computer Engineering, and went on to get a PhD in Learning Sciences. What made you decide to focus on learning and education rather than going straight into industry? 

I had great summer and part-time jobs as an undergraduate, most in areas related to artificial intelligence. I learned to love AI as a field, and my mentors in industry suggested I think about a Ph.D.

What happened next was that I realized I needed to know more about human intelligence before I could make artificial intelligence. And I happened to run into a new interdisciplinary program called Learning Sciences that combined computer science, education, and psychology. As a student in that program, I was able to combine my computing skills with new knowledge about how people learn in schools and other settings.

The further I got into my Ph.D. studies and later work, the more I understood the challenges and rewards of helping humans learn with computers. More, I realized that social and cultural problems are complex and offer no easy shortcuts; it takes a lot of unconventional thinking to solve them. Questions like: How do you work in teams? How do you figure out who really wants or needs this technological device? How does learning change when knowledge is instantly at your fingertips through search engines? These sorts of questions are interesting to me because they can't be answered without integrated technical and humanistic perspectives. And I love CCI because I believe our faculty are training students to address these kinds of problems.

How can we better use creativity and innovation in computing education?

People generally think of the arts as being the one field where there are no right or wrong answers, but the same thing is often true in computing. For example, you have to be able to write coherent code that other people can understand, but that process can be incredibly unique for each student. Just look at our senior design projects. Any given team is going to have a radically different approach to that project because it’s comprised of different students with different skills and sets of experiences. To some extent, all our students are already studying creativity. No matter what their specialization may be, we are giving our students tools to push the boundaries of what you can achieve with technology.

What are some of your key goals for CCI in the next year?

First, to build more international partnerships. We are working to encourage more international students to come here and study at Drexel. There have also been conversations about encouraging our students to study abroad, and I highly encourage that.

Second, I think we need to work with the entire CCI community (students, faculty, staff, and Corporate Partners) to constantly improve our academic areas. I think we can learn a lot from our Corporate Partners, and from our students on co-op who have gotten a taste of working out in industry, about how to direct our curriculum and guide us in the right direction to better prepare our students for success.

Finally, thinking about the Women in Computing Initiative, I want to work on creating the right conditions to retain more female students. When we do this correctly, the culture will be better for everyone. Although the initiative has “women” in the name, we know that broadening participation in STEM creates a culture that is better for all students, including men, women, and underrepresented minorities.

What’s something people might not know about you?

I am heavily involved with the ExCITe Center. I love that it’s a place that brings together students from CCI and Westphal and Education and all over campus to work on crazy ideas. Whatever your boundary or disciplinary area, the ExCITe Center gives you a chance to leave it at the door, come in, and get experimental. You can find things to do that might just be fun, or it could be something that spins out into a bigger project like the Center for Functional Fabrics. It’s a place where you can be creative outside of an academic unit, and I think it fulfills a unique need to push people from different spaces across campus to work together.

I also like dogs and drums. A lot.

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