BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Michael F. Buckley, a University at Buffalo
computer science lecturer, is leading a national movement to change
the way computer science is taught in college.
His students learn about Buddhism. They read "The Tao of Pooh."
They visit a center for children with disabilities and are asked to
design technologies that can improve the way these children live
The Assistive Technology Laboratory that Buckley and Kris D.
Schindler, Ph.D., UB teaching assistant professor, have created
on-campus is now a popular hangout for computer science
Buckley calls his movement "computing for a cause," or socially
relevant computing. He thinks it could save computer science from
its current slump: America's 2007 graduating class had its lowest
number of majors in 10 years, down to just 8,000 graduates
nationwide, according to the Computing Research Association.
"Creating practical solutions to socially relevant problems
focuses incredible philanthropic and creative energy," said
Buckley. "When students work on these projects, they see themselves
less as geeks and more as citizens."
Microsoft Corp. agrees.
The software giant has been funding Buckley's efforts since
2004. He currently has about $60,000 in support from the company
and visits with Microsoft executives on a regular basis to discuss
"Microsoft is excited to support Professor Buckley's commitment
to engage more students to pursue majors in computer science," said
Gus Weber, Greater Northeast Microsoft academic relations manager.
"His socially relevant computing programs assist in problem-solving
for real-world applications and map to Microsoft's commitment to
Buckley teaches freshman courses in introductory programming and
systems design in the Department of Computer Science and
Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied
Students in the UB Assistive Technology Lab have designed and
developed more than 20 socially valuable technologies, several of
which have now been licensed to companies and are being introduced
to the marketplace.
"We are pushing socially relevant computing as a means to
attract a diverse population of students to computer science," said
Buckley. "Students don't know that they can address societal
concerns with computer science."
Eventually, the goal is to attract interest from high schools so
that students come to college with some awareness of the societal
value of computer science.
With the support of Microsoft and Applied Sciences Group, Inc.,
of Buffalo and with colleagues at Rice University, Buckley
developed a Web site -- http://www.sociallyrelevantcomputing.org
-- to make it easier for computer science departments at other
institutions to start courses in socially relevant computing.
"Too often, undergraduate computer design courses lack social
relevance," said Buckley. "They don't help students figure out how
it's relevant to society's technology needs, like helping people
with a range of disabilities, or establishing a region's safest
evacuation plan in case of a natural disaster."
Every semester, Buckley takes his "Software Engineering"
students to the Center for Handicapped Children's Learning Center
in Williamsville, N.Y. Clients of the center have multiple
disabilities and are too severely disabled to attend public
"I ask my students, 'How can you use technology to improve their
lives?'" said Buckley.
Initially, he expected that some of his students would be
uncomfortable with the level of disability that they saw at the
center and some might opt to choose another project. "But in the
end, all participated and each student was changed by the
experience," he said. "Suddenly, they were working on projects that
could impact real families."
One of the first projects to come out of the UB Technology Lab,
the UB Talker, was customized to allow a 43-year-old stroke patient
to communicate for the first time in 20 years. The technology uses
voice synthesis and a touch-screen laptop computer to allow for
natural, two-way conversations.
"This gentleman could think and move, but not speak," said
Schindler. "We simply turned our students loose and their creative
energy came through."
A subsequent team of students then adapted the technology for
children at the Center for Handicapped Children. The UB Talker is
now available from Applied Sciences Group and hundreds are expected
to be delivered to disabled children and adults this year.
UB students also developed a programmable light and sound
station used to teach physically handicapped, autistic and
developmentally delayed children. "It's very difficult to teach
cause and effect and choice-making to severely disabled children,"
said Buckley. "It can take years."
Through the use of light, music, spoken words, even fog
machines, the systems developed by the students provide positive
feedback to the children through enhanced sensory experiences,
encouraging them to learn to make choices and to begin to
understand cause and effect.
Another student team has developed an Incident Response
Monitoring System that monitors the vital signs of emergency
responders in the field and can notify others when an individual is
Buckley's lab is now developing the system into a prototype,
with help from Spectracom Corp. in Rochester and researchers at
Rochester Institute of Technology and Syracuse University.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system that is its largest and most comprehensive
campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic
interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and
professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at
Buffalo is a member of the Association of American