Importance of Information Published 2006-10-26

I had a wonderful evening a couple of days ago attending a dinner/speaker event at Caltech. The presenter was Richard Murray, director of IST (Information Science and Technology) at Caltech. He described the Institute's work in developing a interdisciplinary research and teaching initiative based on information.

Information science and technology has evolved over the last fifty years from an activity that focused on enabling more efficient calculations to a major intellectual theme that spans numerous disciplines in engineering and the sciences. To go further, however, we need new, unified ways of looking at, approaching, and exploiting information in and across the physical and biological realms, as well as the social sciences and engineering. from IST website

Information Science is a favorite of mine so I was excited to be attending and I was not disappointed. Besides an excellent dinner and wonderful dinning companions, Dr. Murray's presentation was fascinating, two highlights of which I would like to share.

First, Information Science is one of the core sciences that all Caltech undergraduates must study (the others being Biology, Chemistry, and Physics). Wow! That really makes a statement of the importance that Institute is placing on information and its interconnection with all that is done there. Many (e.g. Warlick, and November) write about a new literacy. This is exactly what is being done at Caltech. Information permeates our existence more today than any time in history. It is important that we study these information flows and consider novel ways of acquiring, filtering, and processing information. How many of you are reading this post by directly browsing to Or are you using an RSS aggregator? Or are viewing this through a portal channel? Through some social networking site?

The other fascinating topic on which Dr. Murray spoke was Team Caltech and the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Like in past challenges, students will design and build an unmanned, autonomous vehicle that will have to negotiate a track all on its own. What is different this time is that the track will be in an urban setting where the vehicle will have to travel down streets obeying traffic rules including stop signs. Dr. Murray showed us a video taken as Team Caltech travel through the streets of Pasadena. The two video feeds (one from the front and one from the side) show what the vehicle will "see" and process. What really excited me was something that Dr. Murray said: "Before the students can start solving problems, they must first figure out what problems need being solved." YES! As teachers we are always telling students what to do. Isn't it more realistic (authentic) to have them determine what need being done. Not only could they be assessed on how well they solve a problem, but also on how well they define the problems to be solved.

Congratulations to Caltech and Dr. Murray for recognizing and institutionalizing the importance of information and interdisciplinary projects. I can hardly wait for this movement to spread to all Universities and into High Schools. It is not a matter of if but when.

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Anonymous said...

Dr. Murray was one of my favorite professors, but I was so busy with ME 72 I barely passed his course. I was only very briefly involved with the first DGC, since they gave me a diploma and made me go home.

Note that it's "Caltech," with a little 't,' and never "CalTech" or--God forbid--"Cal Tech." Not as big of an issue as the inexplicable first 's' in "Johns Hopkins," but close. I shudder every time I come across it, but visitors can be forgiven (once).

rob banning said...


Thanks for the correction on "CalTech" vs "Caltech". I don't know what I was thinking, but perhaps I have been spending too much time programming? Anyways, I have made the corrections and I hope that I have not affended too many folks. :-)