UCLA Professors Bone Up on Computers to Keep Up With Students

Times Staff Writer

The tidy computer lab in the UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was filled with brand new computers and was anything but quiet.

As David Kay, a youthful computer science professor, lectured and gestured to the class, the students clacked away at their machines. Occasionally a computer would beep at the student manipulating the keys.

The beeps and clacks were not unusual in a computer course, but the students were.


Kay was tutoring 18 senior engineering professors who have been sitting in the classroom from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week for two intensive weeks of instruction.

Why do engineering professors need a course in computers?

“You have to communicate with your students,” said Christian Wagner, a professor of engineering and applied sciences who has taught at UCLA for 15 years. “Graduate students (use the) computers and they are like magicians. We are afraid of making mistakes. . . . We all get scared when the computer beeps.”

Computers have been used at the Westwood campus for years, but the rate of computerization is accelerating rapidly. Large grants from the electronics industry have greatly increased the number of computer systems in all departments. And incoming students have been weaned on computers, overtaking some professors in computer skills.

Five-Year Plan

In May, 1984, IBM gave the university a $13-million grant to purchase computers and provide training. Albert A. Barber, UCLA’s vice chancellor for research programs, said that in the next five years, UCLA will spend $50 million to $60 million on nearly 2,000 desk-top computers, storage facilities, laboratories, training and personnel. Much of the money will come from computer company grants.

There are computer labs in the social sciences, the physical sciences and the business school, Barber said. The library is automated so that people can search the stacks from a computer terminal, rather than going to the card catalogues.

“We are in the process of developing a very extensive campus computer network,” Barber said. “We are also interconnecting a lot of external computer networks so that we can communicate with other universities and national data banks.”

George L. Turin, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said that computers are changing engineering instruction. Computer graphics are used in designing everything from chemical plants to microcircuits, he said. And he decided it was time to get his faculty to look upon computers as more than “glorified slide rules.”

“We get students here who have been playing with computers since they were 7 or 8 years old,” Turin said. “They have been living and breathing these things. That’s the way they think now. We have to change the way we teach engineering. . . . Anyone who steps out of the mainstream in this technology is really going to be in trouble in terms of a professional career.”

Turin pointed to his own background as an example. There were no digital computers when he was an undergraduate 40 years ago, or when he was a doctoral candidate in the 1950s, he said. He had accumulated 20 years of experience as a professional engineer when the computer revolution erupted in the 1970s. Now he is trying to catch up.

‘Lucrative Market’

Turin’s department received a large portion of the IBM grant. “In two years we will have a (computer) work station at every professor’s desk and at most grad students’ desks,” Turin said.

Other computer companies are also making grants to UCLA in hopes of tapping into what is a potentially lucrative market, Turin said. The firms may reap profits from having 230 students a day “sitting in front of a machine that says IBM.”

Standing outside the computer lab, Turin said he was concerned about some aspects of the rise in computerization, particularly that engineering students will not learn theories and will come to rely too heavily on computers. But he said the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Computer professor Kay, a lawyer who has been consulted in computer crime cases, also acknowledged the potential for trouble, including the widespread failure to teach computer ethics. He teaches the subject in all of his courses. Kay added that the computers at UCLA have safeguards to prevent privacy violations.

He emphasized that the computers will improve instruction at UCLA. He said, for example, that someday a professor will be able to walk into a classroom, punch a few keys and produce a picture of water flowing through a hydraulic system on each student’s computer screen. The rest of the class time can be devoted to analysis of the system.

But the professors insisted that the classroom of the future will not consist of students and teachers communicating entirely through computers.

“If you are trying to understand a complex engineering topic, there has to be feedback between two people.” Turin said. “Not just voice contact, but eye contact.”

Vice Chancellor Barber said that it will take some time before the impact of the computers on campus will be known. “I don’t think any of us know where the application will be going,” he said. “Some have reservations about the impact it can have on the instructional process. We’re feeling our way along.”