New SEAS program develops next generation of innovators

Text by Evan Lerner


The science and technology at the core of some of the world’s most innovative technology companies is not just about programming computers to do new and interesting things. Sites such as Google and Facebook have changed the way people live, through the science of networks. They have changed how people connect to computers, how they connect to information, and how they connect to one another.

A new program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) called Market and Social Systems Engineering, or MKSE, aims to develop the next generation of social system innovators and solidify the field of study as its own engineering discipline. The first undergraduate program of its kind, SEAS began offering MKSE classes this semester.   

To inaugurate the new program, Penn Engineering will host a MKSE kickoff ceremony on Friday, Nov. 11, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. in Levine Hall’s Wu and Chen Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

MKSE grew out of computer science and engineering professor Michael Kearns’s popular undergraduate course, “Networked Life.” The class mixes the quantitative, computational aspects of social networks with the more qualitative sociological and economic aspects of the field. As MKSE director, Kearns will provide introductory remarks at the Nov. 11 celebration. His comments will be followed by a series of speakers representing the research, engineering and entrepreneurial aspects of the discipline.

Partial map of the internet based on Jan. 15, 2005 data. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. Photo by The Opte Project

Rakesh Vohra, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Jon Kleinberg, a professor of computer science at Cornell will address the research side. Vohra studies the mechanisms by which prices of social systems are set, while Kleinberg collaborates with sociologists and economists on the study of large-scale social phenomena using data from online domains.

Discussing the engineering side will be Andrew Tomkins, director of engineering for the Google+ social network. Representing entrepreneurs will be Chris Dickson, co-founder of the web startup Hunch, which gathers opinions and preferences from its users, then uses the information to answer questions and help decision-making.

Kearns envisions providing applied knowledge to students in the program through a combination of guest lectures from industry leaders, real-world experiments and internship opportunities. The program, he says, will provide a new opportunity to teach the fundamentals of a nascent field to undergraduates, and that will benefit students and teachers alike. “You don’t really know a subject well until you have to teach it to undergraduates,” he says.

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