IT Pisa: record-breaking style

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02:09:25
June
17 2009

IT Pisa: record-breaking style

the heritage / 1, by Giorgio Levi

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Pisa: In the second half of the 1960s, the CSCE - Study Center on Electronic Calculators - was about to become the IEI (institute for information processing) under the management of Gianfranco Capriz and would then move to Via Santa Maria in Pisa. The CEP was still ‘alive but would soon be replaced by the powerful IBM machine brought to the CNUCE by Alessandro Faedo. The Center was set to become one of the the most important reference points for scientifi c computing in Italy. It had been Faedos idea - very courageous and forward looking - to bring IT to the University of Pisa, with the establishment of a degree course in computer sciences. It started off in 1969 hosted by the Faculty of Sciences. Teachers and youngsters At the same time another decision was brewing and that would be important for the future of computing in Pisa. The idea was to bring Antonio Grasselli to Pisa from the Politecnico of Milan. Within IEI he was to be responsible for setting up a new research sector with the possibility of building a new research team from scratch, by recruiting, over a three-year period, a dozen or so new graduates and a young expert researcher who almost all had done their training in Milan. Signifi cant recruiting also took place in the other groups, in particular under in the guidance of Gerace and Caracciolo. Together with some of the most expert researchers from IEI, this generation of young people would turn out to be decisive for the birth and development of computer science in Pisa. It was also to provide the backbone of what would then become Pisas IT contribution to the Engineering Faculty and to departments and faculties in other towns such as Rome (engineering), Turin and Florence. The Department The new course began with the creation of a new institute (known from the beginning as the Department in order to make its innovative nature stand out). It was set up with technical and administrative staff mostly from IEI.


Seen in the light of diffi culties that Italian universities fi nd themselves in today, the whole thing was incredible. It opened up a new area, both teaching and research, with personnel taken from the CNR plus an extraordinary number of young people, who initially worked on temporary contracts or through competitive examinations for university or CNR positions. Everything worked so well that it had a strong positive effect on all the future developments. Teaching The degree course that was organized in Pisa was then replicated in other locations, starting from Bari, Salerno and Turin. For many years, however, the course in Pisa reigned supreme and attracted students from all over Italy and produced generations of top class computer scientists. Many of these went on to do further research, exporting the lines of the Pisan school of research to other universities. Many people managed to gain signifi cant positions in companies, especially in all the most innovative ones, and in some cases showing considerable business skills. The IT experience in Pisa also had an important role in the birth of degree courses in Information Engineering. This was stimulated by policies promoted by the PCI (Italian communist party) and carried out by the academic staff in Pisa with Gerace in the front line. Research The research within the new Institute was centered around the people and issues imported from IEI. After a few years, Caracciolo and Grasselli left Pisa. Gerace was the only founder and he continued to head up the systems group. Milvio Capovani was responsible for a numerical analysis group and then went on to invent Computational Mathematics. Grassellis group began to diversify their scientifi c interests, moving towards algorithms and languages, with interests in artifi cial intelligence, software engineering and databases. This led to the setting up of several research groups who would then go onto to play a crucial role in the evolution of the Institute. The recruitment of researchers from outside Pisa reinforced the sectors dealing with theoretical computer sciences and operations research.


Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Institute became a true Department (one of the fi rst at the University of Pisa) and a PhD school was set up, which would then become the channel for training a new generation of researchers. The PhD course almost immediately reached comparable levels of quality to those of large international schools. During the same period, CNR projects and the fi rst major EU-funded projects led computer scientists into collaborations with industry. The Department of Computer Science was at the forefront in getting industries to set up research labs in the Pisa area. The downside In the mid 1990s, the Department began to feel the effects of some problems caused by legislative "innovations” and some adverse decisions made in the local area. Young researchers schooled in Pisa had diffi culties in fi nding outlets in other locations. At the same time the increasingly lower fi nancial resources were mostly used for promotions. The Department was no longer able to plan its development, nor could it gain new life by attracting young people nor open new areas of research with recruitment from abroad. From a curriculum point of view continual changes in the system, misguided educational decisions related to unclear political objectives, the perception of our courses such as being "easy”, together with presence of competing courses in virtually every corner of the country, led to a decrease in the quality of the students and, in particular, in the proportion of students from provinces outside the wide area of Pisa. Looking ahead Today the Department still carries out highquality research, and is able to obtain substantial funding at an international level. For example, in 2008 funding obtained by the Department as part of European projects amounted to a quarter of the total obtained by the whole of the University of Pisa. But the most comforting aspect is the quality of some of the professors and young researchers, who are particularly inventive in terms of planning what should be done. Problems regarding training have been dealt with through various initiatives. We have diversifi ed our offer: we now offer courses in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Economics, by redesigning the computer science course on more rigorous lines, and we have

Source by CNR


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