Computer Science Enrollment Triples, Majors Double

By Emily Singer

Over the last three years, enrollment in Computer Science courses at the College has tripled. The growth is the largest in any department in recent history, and is in keeping with nationwide enrollment trends, spurred by job opportunities and the glamorization of start-ups, entrepreneurship and new technologies.

Enrollment in Computer Science courses was tallied at 451 for the 2012-2013 academic year, up from 164 in 2008-2009. The number of students majoring in Computer Science has increased significantly as well, with 10 declared majors in the class of 2014 and 20 in the class of 2015 — the most that the Computer Science department has ever experienced.

This growth is in keeping with national trends, as a report by the Computing Research Association published in March 2013 revealed that the number of undergraduate students studying computer science had risen by double digits for the third consecutive year. Earlier this fall, Harvard University announced that enrollment in its introductory computer science course had grown 590 percent in a decade, from 112 in 2004 to 771 in 2013.

Founded in the mid-1980s, the Computer Science major was originally housed within the department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Computer Science courses were taught initially led by mathematics professors and Library Information Services (LIS) faculty members. However the College gradually expanded the department and hired more full-time faculty including Computer Science Department Chair Matthew Dickerson, hired in 1989 as the College’s first professor with a doctorate in Computer Science.

Dickerson noted the early challenges for liberal arts colleges seeking to establish Computer Science departments in he 1980s, as larger universities offered greater research opportunities and more competitive salaries. By the time Computer Science became a freestanding department in the early 2000s, the discipline had seen substantial growth and development.

“By that time, we had our own critical mass,” Dickerson said. “We had five computer science professors, we had our entirely own curriculum, we had our entirely own major.”

Student interest in Computer Science has grown steadily since then, with more students enrolling in 100-level courses than ever before.

“Next year, for the first time ever, there will be [all five Computer Science professors] on campus teaching all at once. In the past, someone has always been on leave,” Dickerson said. “That will enable us to offer a lot of 100-level sections so that everyone who wants to get into a 100-level class will be able to. And we’re also doubling the number of sections of our 200-level classes.”

Dickerson said that the increased enrollment became especially noticeable three years ago, and subsequent growth has been accommodated with and aided by the addition of two new 100-level courses, as opposed to a single one-size-fits-all introductory course.

“I think that helped students to see how interesting the discipline was and how it related to other disciplines,” Dickerson said, noting that the new courses cater to the multiple problem solving strategies taught in Computer Science, with emphasis on experimentation, deductive reasoning and engineering.

Such is the reason that Bryan Holtzman ’14 decided to enroll in CSCI 150: Computing for the Sciences.

“It’s a growing field with many applications to areas beyond computer science. As such, I decided to enroll to see what all the fuss was about, and I hope to learn the ways in which computer scientists think,” he said.

Increased demand for computer programmers, website and app developers and a general knowledge of coding languages in the post-graduate realm has also contributed to increased enrollment.

While no other department at the College has experienced a change as extreme as Computer Science, enrollment statistics over the past five years have displayed growth in Biology, Economics, Education Studies, Mathematics and Women’s and Gender Studies. By contrast, enrollment in English and American Literatures and Religion courses has decreased slightly.

“Over a five-year period, you get a lot of up and down and it’s hard to see what’s just fluctuating and what’s really changing,” said Dean of Faculty and Philip Battell/Sarah Stewart Professor of Biology Andrea Lloyd. “It’s striking to see how much enrollment can change from year to year because of what people happen to be interested in.”

Lloyd noted that the College’s enrollment shifts are mostly consistent with nationwide trends.

“The thing we’re seeing in the longer-term data is an increase in the sciences and interdisciplinary programs, and declining enrollment in some, but not all, of the humanities,” she said.

“The Computer Science [enrollment trend] is an unbelievably striking pattern,” Lloyd said. “Though I’m actually less surprised that the numbers are high now than I am that they were low back then,” citing the growing emphasis on new technologies as a major influencing factor.