Computer Science Through a Legal Lens
Senior Yaelle Goldschlag realized during her time at Maryland that working with computers can create a unique set of legal issues that often don’t get much attention in CS classes. So she decided to do something about it. She created her own class.
“I've always been really interested in the intersection of law and policy and computer science,” said Goldschlag, who is also pursuing a second degree in mathematics. “We have these decisions that we need to make in terms of how we want technology to function in society and what we want the future of technology to look like. To make these decisions, you need a background in both technology and law.”
Goldschlag developed the one-credit course for computer science majors, CMSC389A: “Law and Computer Science,” and is teaching it this semester through the university’s Student Initiated Courses (STICs) program. The program lets students teach courses they design themselves under the guidance of a faculty advisor. And some students, including Goldschlag, even get paid to teach them.
“You propose the topic that you want to teach, and you submit a syllabus, list of assignments and grading policies. You also need to find an advisor in your department—mine is Professor Neil Spring—who is responsible for what happens in the course,” she explained about the process. “You make the proposal in the beginning of the semester and if it is approved then you finalize the details to get ready to teach for the following semester.”
Goldschlag, who previously taught another STIC, CMSC389O: “The Coding Interview,” has wanted to propose the computer law course for a few years. After she took a similar course while studying abroad at Oxford, her STIC started to take shape.
Goldschlag’s class at Oxford influenced the reading material she proposed for her course as well as how to approach the discussion topics. She also reached out to people teaching similar courses at other universities to help guide her decision making.
Goldschlag’s course aims to answer two questions: How is digital technology being deployed in key areas of legal work? How should current legal doctrine be applied to new technologies?
When Goldschlag participated in the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students (ACES) in the university’s Honors College, she took classes that focused on technology and ethics. It was in those classes that she realized there was an interest among her classmates in discussing how policy impacts technology.
“I saw in my ACES courses that my peers were interested in having discussions about computer science grounded in a real basis of law and philosophy,” she said. “I knew there was a desire to build a framework for having these rigorous discussions among peers, with a balance between a formal curriculum and a discussion group. I’m glad I was able to develop that.”
When Goldschlag originally thought of the course, she envisioned a classroom full of her peers participating in lively discussions that inspired them to stay behind to continue the discussion even after class was over. But when her class moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to give up part of that vision.
“Teaching the course virtually is definitely not what I imagined,” she said. “There are fewer opportunities for informal conversations before and after class.”
Fortunately, Goldschlag’s discussion topics for the class did not have to change, and her students have shown a lot of interest.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the conversations during class are going really well. The students are very engaged and the conversation runs smoothly for the whole hour,” she said. “I also stay online for an extra 10 minutes at the end of class and usually a couple of people stay on afterwards to chat.”
There have also been some surprise benefits to teaching the course virtually. Goldschlag lined up guest speakers from across the country who teach similar courses and work at the intersection of computer science and law.
After she graduates in May, Goldschlag hopes to continue a similar course of study and enroll in a J.D./Ph.D. program. Her goal: to get both a law degree and a Ph.D. in computer science.
“I want to be able to affect policy by both deciding what it should look like and actually getting policies enacted,” she said. “I want to be able to look ahead and determine what technology policy needs will be in the future.”
You can support CS majors teaching Student Initiated Courses by donating to the CMNS Student Initiated Course Support Fund.
Written by Chelsea Torres
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