Internet Expert Named Director of New Computational Thinking Center



By Casey Moffitt
Anita Nikolic ACT Center 1280x850

Anita Nikolich, research professor of computer science, is ready to tackle the challenges of incorporating computation across Illinois Institute of Technology as the inaugural director of the Active Computational Thinking (ACT) Center.

“The premise is that computer science and related areas will be—if they aren’t already—the underpinning­ of all disciplines throughout Illinois Tech,” Nikolich says. “We’re trying to build a community to address hard problems that in some way involve computational thinking.”

The ACT Center was established two years ago through a gift to the Department of Computer Science from Illinois Tech Trustee Chris Gladwin. Since then a strategic plan for the center has been developed, and it is now ready to begin addressing the university’s interdisciplinary computational research and educational needs.

“Such interdisciplinary collaboration between the computer science department and the rest of the university has a long history,” Nikolich says. “The ACT Center, we hope, will intensify that collaboration by providing a focused nexus by which faculty can interact more broadly and deeply around computing-related fellowship.”

The plan is to facilitate implementation plans within thematic elements of computational thinking. For example, the ACT 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 computer science department. “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. Anita, with her broad experience in computer science research, innovation, and outreach is the ideal leader for this effort.”

“Doing things on campus is challenging, but it’s just the beginning,” Nikolich explains. “We are also looking to connect regionally and nationally with computing facilities and national research networks to enhance Illinois Tech’s capabilities.”

That includes physically connecting the campus to additional scientific research facilities and national scale networks through a robust cyberinfrastructure.

The next step is to join larger communities, including the Midwest Big Data Hub, a National Science Foundation-funded regional program, and to become active participants in advancing computer science in big data, high-performance computing and AI.

“Then we will be part of a national conversation, both about the cyberinfrastructure to build out the computer hardware and network but more importantly, to facilitate connections with other research groups,” Nikolich says, noting that the ACT Center will help faculty collaborate around the latest hardware, software, programming, and operating systems, and also connect them to experts on campus and beyond who can advance research efforts. “Whether it’s academic or not-for-profit or industry, we can become a place where researchers can learn about resources they may not know about.”

The ACT Center will include faculty from all the university’s colleges, providing a variety of views as to how computing can and should be incorporated into all disciplines.

“You only get this unique, transdisciplinary research by including people with totally different perspectives,” Nikolich says. “You can’t really fully explore AI if you’re just a computing person. You need help from people who understand design, or the legal aspects.”

College of Science Dean Lance Fortnow appointed Nikolich as the new director. He says her professional experience makes her a good fit for the task.

“Anita has tremendous leadership experience at the National Science Foundation, as co-director of the FABRIC project to look at making a better internet, and in helping to spread AI education across campus,” he says. “She will make an excellent head of the ACT Center to spearhead Illinois Tech's efforts to define the future of computing.”

Photo: Research Professor of Computer Science Anita Nikolich