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The World Ahead: Our Approach to Educating Our Masters Students

Educating our Computer Science masters and doctoral students is the most important activity of the department. Our central focus is equipping our students to perform well as technical leaders in the world they will face after graduation. Complexity and change are dominant characteristics of that world. We develop technical leaders by teaching a principles-based curriculum, around which we build practices for managing complexity and innovation. We conduct an extensive research program that directly enhances national security by increasing the effectiveness of the armed forces of the United States and its allies.

 

"... to provide relevant and unique advanced education and research programs to increase the combat effectiveness of the U.S. and Allied armed forces."

- From "NPS Mission Statement"

Peter J. Denning, CS Chair 

Computer Science and The National Security Domain

The national security focus woven through our Computer Science curriculum and research is unique among higher education institutions. We teach discipline skills in the context of national security concerns, making our computer science directly relevant to the national security thinking, operations, practice, and research. We maintain numerous connections with national security people and make them available to our students.

We function as a normal academic department at a research university. Our students learn to be individual thinkers -- able to question, provide well grounded assessments, extract the essence of other works, and write well reasoned reports -- as they approach national security issues.

Complexity

Every year, information technology doubles in power, as measured by performance and bandwidth -- a factor of 1000 increase in a decade. Every decade, therefore, the complexity of technology and software system design grows by factor of 1000. Twenty years ago, computing was a medium for email and file transfer. Today it is a medium for sounds, images, movies, and interactive games. In a decade or two, it will be a medium for sophisticated pattern computations that mimic intelligent human behavior. Computing people must constantly produce innovative methods to deal with the incessant growth of complexity.

In the defense domain these relentless changes have brought an endless stream of complex challenges. Naval operations, for example, have had to deal with information technology in nuclear propulsion, self-guiding cruise missiles, phased array radar, electronic countermeasures, database systems, worldwide network operations, cryptography, inertial navigation, and GPS. Each of these areas can take years to master.

A natural response to the increasing complexity is specialization: focusing more learning time on a few components in depth and less on the "whole" of systems. The price for too much narrowness is systemic inefficiencies, unforeseen behaviors, vulnerabilities, and chaotic conditions. We seek a balance: "To be a good specialist, you need a system view." We develop specialists who are system-thinkers -- graduates well grounded in fundamental computing principles who, by grasping technicalities while still seeing the interactions among system components, can distill system-level understanding that serves decision-makers.

In DoD’s complex, continuously changing information environments, our graduates will have to be highly interactive as they look for ways to produce cooperation, and their environments will be in continuous adjustment. Dynamic, flexible system-thinking is a must.

With their firm understanding of computing principles, our graduates will decompose the complexity, simplify understanding for others, and propose effective system architectures. They will be learning continuously while they understand the ongoing changes and maintain awareness of the core underlying principles.

Innovation

Our graduates will deal constantly with two kinds of innovation in the world: sustaining and disruptive. Most of the technologies they will work with go through extended periods of continuous, incremental improvements -- a process of sustaining innovation. Armored battleships, for example, became prevalent in the 1870s and underwent continuous improvement for well over a century. Aviation appeared in the early 1900s and underwent continuous incremental improvements, maturing into an air transportation industry used by 700 million people each year. Each of these sustained periods produced enormous cumulative improvements.

Sooner or later, these sustained periods of incremental improvements are disrupted by completely new technologies based on different principles and requiring new ways of thinking. For example, in the early 1920s aerial bombing proved devastating to the most heavily armored ships, leading to the innovation of naval air fleets and eventually to the aircraft carrier. Terrorists disrupted air travel by exploiting Internet technology to coordinate suicide terror operations that eluded US intelligence.

The point of the distinction is that sustaining and disruptive innovations require different approaches. Sustaining innovations "improve the system". Disruptive innovations “change the system”; they occur when something external changes the system or forces people to move to a new system. Our graduates will meet both cases in their work. Our curriculum and research support both.

Research

Our research program is our institutional way of advancing knowledge. With its unique focus on national security, our research program contributes to the larger goals of combat effectiveness and security for the US and its allies. It also maintains our awareness of technology advancement; each year we update about 10% of our curriculum materials based on what we learn.

Our research program pays for itself several times over by bringing direct value to military commands and DoD agencies. At least 50 of our 60 annual masters theses are studies, prototypes, or field experiments of direct value to national defense. If a command or agency were to commission private consultants to perform the same work, they would pay anywhere from $200K to $500K apiece. That is an equivalent market value of $10M to $25M annually from this aspect of our research program.

We collaborate extensively with others at NPS and with external agencies, universities, and industries.

Program Implications

We will equip our students:

  • To tackle complexity, and other challenging issues, by instilling a solid grounding in the fundamental principles of computing.
  • To tackle sustaining innovation, by a thesis project in which they master the details of a technical area and propose and evaluate advances in that area.
  • To tackle disruptive innovation, by a variety of means including theses that study paradigm changes, faculty research seminars, coursework, and department learning explorations of potentially disruptive themes.
  • To think independently and creatively, carrying out their own in-depth studies as needed to address new situations in their work.

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