published November 1, 2006

SENCER E-Newsletter, November 2006, Volume 6, Issue 3

Computation Science: Learning to Apply Mathematics and Computer Science to Important Scientific and Public Programs

Angela B. Shiflet, Wofford College

Talk about "civic engagement"! Consider the following research projects performed at laboratories across the country by some of Wofford College's Emphasis in Computational Science (ECS) students:

  • Creating a database and performing statistical analyses to examine the relationship of diet and neural tube defects

  • Developing software for the science operations interface of Mars rovers

  • Simulating the life cycle of the parasite that causes Chagas' disease to determine effective treatments

  • Modeling metabolic pathways of a bacterium that breaks down toxic metals to provide insight for environmental cleanup

Many of the most significant questions in research, such as those above, are in the realm of computational science, an interdisciplinary area combining science, mathematics, and computer science. However, a critical shortage exists of scientists who are prepared to employ computing as well as theory and experimentation.

Angela Shiflet

With National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, Wofford College has developed one of the few undergraduate programs in computational science (Wofford College's ECS). To obtain an ECS, students must earn a B.S. in mathematics or a laboratory science, complete a summer internship involving computation in the sciences, and take Calculus I, Introductory Programming, Data Structures, Modeling and Simulation for the Sciences, and Data and Visualization.

Modeling and Simulation embraces two major approaches to computational science problems: System dynamics models with their global views of major systems that change with time and cellular automaton simulations with their local views of how individuals affect individuals. Wofford's George Shiflet (biology) and Angela Shiflet (computer science and mathematics) coauthored the course's text, which is the first textbook designed specifically for an introductory course in computational science (Introduction to Computational Science: Modeling and Simulation for the Sciences, Princeton University Press, 2006).

Databases that are accessible through the world wide web, such as those for genomics, are prevalent for storing scientific information. Thus, with online materials developed with NSF funding, half of the Data and Visualization course covers creation of Web-accessible databases and algorithms for measuring the similarity of gene sequences. Effective visualization of data helps scientists extract information and communicate results. Therefore, in the second half of the semester, students learn fundamental concepts and algorithms of computer graphics and how to program interactive three-dimensional animations. Throughout both computational science courses, applications in the sciences are emphasized.

Building on classroom work, Wofford ECS students have had exciting and meaningful summer internships involving computation in scientific research at such institutions as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Scripps Research Institute, Shodor Education Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Wadsworth Center, and various universities. After their internships, students have presented their results at a variety of regional and national conferences.

Graduates with an ECS have attended medical school and pursued graduate degrees in such areas as genetics, biotechnology, computer graphics, bioengineering, and computational physics. ECS graduates have obtained positions, such as pharmaceutical researcher, medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health, and computational science educator at the Shodor Foundation.

Thus, as Wofford's experiences demonstrate and as discussions at SSI 2006 reinforced, schools can develop meaningful undergraduate computational science programs that prepare students to become effective, civically engaged leaders and researchers.