New College of Computing to Anchor Computation and Data Activities

By Casey Moffitt, with Marcia Faye
New College of Computing
Photo: David Ettinger

A hub for addressing a variety of interdisciplinary computational research and educational needs. Degree programs in artificial intelligence. Collaborations with experts around the United States on how to develop a faster and more secure internet. These are just some of the projects that will take place under Illinois Institute of Technology’s new College of Computing, which opened on June 1. Besides the Department of Computer Science, the College of Computing, headed by current College of Science Dean Lance Fortnow, will house the departments of information technology and management, and applied mathematics, as well as the industrial technology and management program.

“Illinois Tech is already providing students with a very strong foundation in computation and data skills, but now we are going to do it in an integrated way across all academic disciplines, something we believe has never been accomplished in a comprehensive university with law, architecture, and the full range of disciplines,” says Illinois Tech President Alan W. Cramb.

The formation of the college aligns with the university’s commitment to invest in the area of computation and data, a designated university research initiative. It also supports the priority to “fully realize our identity as the premier technology-focused university in Chicago,” as stated in Our Students and Their Success Comes First: A Strategic Plan for Illinois Tech, 2020–2025 .

Illinois Tech Trustee Chris Gladwin helped to spearhead the push for a College of Computing to meet the needs of the twenty-first century labor force. Gladwin founded big-data storage company Cleversafe, which was housed at Illinois Tech’s University Technology Park before it was sold to IBM.

“For years, Illinois Tech has been a key driver of the Chicago economy by empowering its graduates with the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s industries,” says Gladwin. “This leading approach to computing education is a key component in Illinois Tech establishing itself as a global top-tier tech university and empowering Chicago to advance to a global top-tier tech city.”

ACT Center a Computational Campus Hub

Chris Gladwin was also instrumental in establishing Illinois Tech’s Active Computational Thinking (ACT) Center, now under the College of Science umbrella, through a gift he made two years earlier to the Department of Computer Science. Headed by Research Professor Anita Nikolich, a notable cybersecurity expert, the ACT Center will incorporate thematic elements into computational thinking. For example, the center has made artificial intelligence its first theme. Therefore, any department across campus looking to collaborate on projects incorporating computational AI into its research or curriculum can contact the ACT Center, and many have.

“We envision the ACT Center as a new kind of intellectual accelerator here at Illinois Tech,” says Shlomo Argamon, interim chair of the Department of Computer Science. “The center’s mission is to stimulate and support faculty to develop a wide variety of creative interdisciplinary initiatives and bring computational thinking to the fore in all disciplines.” 

Nikolich says that the center will physically connect the campus to additional scientific research facilities and national scale networks through a robust cyberinfrastructure, and will eventually join larger communities, including the Midwest Big Data Hub, a National Science Foundation-funded regional program. It will also become active in advancing computer science in big data, high-performance computing, and AI.

New AI Degree Programs Now Offered
Computational Campus Hub
Illustration: Maxim Evseev

“AI is the future,” says Aron Culotta, an associate professor of computer science and director of Illinois Tech’s new Bachelor of Science in Artificial Intelligence program, which made its debut last fall along with the Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence program. “We want to train a workforce that can tackle the challenges and opportunities of the future, which includes AI and machine learning.” 

Illinois Tech is one of only a handful of universities in the country to offer an AI bachelor’s degree, and the only one in the Midwest to do so. Graduates in the programs will be well prepared to work across the tech, medicine, finance, robotics, business intelligence, law, and insurance sectors in software development positions as well as in AI engineering careers in drug discovery, autonomous vehicles, and web technologies. Given the university’s long history as an ethics leader through the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, the new AI degree program has integrated ethical thinking into its technical courses, which affords critical training in issues of algorithmic fairness, transparency, and bias.

Devyani Gauri (AI 3rd Year) is happy that the timing of the new program has now worked in her favor.

“Ever since I started studying at Illinois Tech, I wanted to do something that involved AI,” she says. “Even though we didn't have it as a major, AI has been one of my biggest interests in fields related to computer science. I wanted to dive in as soon as possible.”

Developing a Faster, More Secure Internet with FABRIC
Anita Nikolich
ACT Center head and FABRIC co-director Anita Nikolich

ACT Center head Anita Nikolich has been tapped to co-direct a project, also under the College of Computing, that will enable scientists to explore what a new internet could look like and to determine the internet architecture of the future.

The FABRIC [Adaptive Programmable Research Infrastructure for Computer Science and Science Applications] project, led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partnership with Illinois Tech, Clemson University, the University of Kentucky, and the United States Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network, will allow experimentation with decentralized, “everywhere programmable” architectures instead of relying on current service providers’ networks. It will test these architectures on a nationwide scale, using dedicated high-speed optical links between locations. This could potentially enable faster speeds, allow transfers of larger data sets, and provide service to underserved areas lacking networks. The project also includes finding new ways to protect information that is transferred across the network.

The computer networking architectures that form the basis for today’s internet were developed from the 1960s through the 1980s, and haven’t changed much since. In that time, however, public demands have changed drastically. FABRIC is testing new network designs that could overcome current internet traffic bottlenecks and extend the internet’s broad benefits for science and society.

FABRIC is being funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation.