Computer Science Faculty Seek Expansion

by / computer science (0) in Arts & Sciences /

Interest in computer science has been trending upward over the past four years at Middlebury College, but in the past four semesters, the computer science department has seen a massive spike in enrollment. Since 2008, introductory enrollment has quadrupled. The total introductory enrollment during the fall semester of 2008 was 26 students, taught in two sections. This fall semester, enrollment in CS 101, “The Computing Age,” and CS150, “Computing for the Sciences,” is at a record 107 students enrolled in four sections.

This trend is not isolated to the introductory classes. Enrollment in CS 201, “Data Structures,” has nearly tripled in the same time period. The number of newly declared majors has jumped from an average of nine each year to 14.

What is driving this significant increase in interest in the computer science? Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair Daniel Scharstein attributes the spike to several factors.

The first is related to the job market and the projected increased demand for computer science-related jobs. The STEM Report, published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in October 2011, projects 51 percent of all jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) will be related to computer science. In a recent press conference, Microsoft admitted that it has 6,000 job openings in the United States alone, with 3,400 of those jobs for researchers, developers and engineers. In other words, there is no shortage of jobs in the computing world, and in a shaky job market, students these days are hedging their bets.

Scharstein thinks the second reason for the enrollment spike is the increased association in popular culture of computer science with “cool”. With the advent of the iPhone App, anyone can write a program and make millions if it becomes a hit.

“It’s sexy to be a programmer,” said Scharstein.

“Or maybe it’s the shark,” he admitted, referencing the remote-controlled floating shark that the computer science department used to advertise its courses during arena registration for first-years earlier this semester.

“We’ve been trying to advertise our courses within Middlebury, trying to attract computer science students, especially first years, by doing publicity stunts like the flying shark,” Scharstein said.

As part of the publicity push, the computer science department has made changes in the classroom, too.

“We’ve restructured our introductory curriculum,” said Scharstein. “We’ve changed our programming language from Java to Python, which provides a gentler introduction, and we’ve integrated labs and lectures.”

Increased campus awareness of the computer science department could be one of the reasons other disciplines are seeing increased value in computer science. Half of the enrollment spike is a result of upperclassmen from a wide array of disciplines (from biology and physics to literature and history, according to Scharstein) taking computer science courses to enhance their degrees.

Matt Grossman ’13, a computer science and physics joint major, elaborated on this phenomenon.

“Back when I started [taking computer science courses] the classes were mostly composed of those interested in the natural sciences or mathematics,” he said. “Now, I see many social science and humanities majors taking the introductory courses. More and more people are recognizing that in today’s world a basic understanding of how computers work is essential, regardless of the discipline. I would speculate that this recognition was precipitated by the massive success of companies like Google, Apple and Facebook.”

Andrew Headrick ’16 is enrolled in CS101 and echoed Grossman’s observations. In the long term, he’s considering an cconomics degree.

“Technology is such an integral part of our lives today,” Headrick said. “We’ve got to understand how it works to take advantage of all it has to offer.”

But such a massive increase in interest over such a short period has its downsides. With only four full-time faculty members, the department is feeling short-staffed.

“It’s hard to know what the numbers will do,” Scharstein said. “But right now, the curriculum is built for four professors. We’re trying to make room, and we haven’t had to turn anybody away yet, but if the numbers continue to climb, we’ll definitely need more staffing.”

According to Assistant Professor of Computer Science David Kauchak, 40 percent of those enrolled in introductory level classes are first-years. If those numbers translate into higher enrollments in upper level courses and more declared majors, the four professors of the computer science department will be stretched thin.

Anticipating a faculty shortage, the department filed a request for a fifth faculty position with the Education Affairs Committee last April, but the position has yet to be filled.

Not only is the department short-staffed, but they’re also short on space.

“I have 31 students in CS150A this semester.” said Kauchak. “Our computer lab seats 22.”

Scharstein said that the department is considering renovations for their labs to increase their capacity.

Despite the challenges this interest poses for the department, they are excited about tapping into that potential.

Both Kauchak and Scharstein mentioned being excited about collaborating with the biology department, referencing a bioinformatics course taught by Albert D. Mead Professor of Biology and Director of the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Program Jeremy Ward, and expressed their desire to develop more courses related to the field of bioinformatics.

“We’d like to do more interdisciplinary stuff,” said Kauchack. “For example, my interest lies in computational linguistics, the intersection of computer science and linguistics, and I’d love to teach a course related to the newly developed linguistics minor. [It’s] a blend of language, education and technology that has a lot of promise.”

Though eager and optimistic about interdisciplinary possibilities, Kauchak is also realistic about the department’s current ability to handle the enrollment spike.

“We’re running at bare bones capacity right now,” said Kauchak.