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Growing C.S. Major Sparks Excitement and Frustration

Melanie Rotax, Contributing Writer

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Growing C.S.  Major Sparks Excitement and Frustration

 

By Melanie Rotax

Contributing Writer

 

In recent years, Clark’s computer science (CS) program has seen a sharp increase in majors, a source of both excitement and anxiety for students and faculty. According to Elissa Lu from Clark’s Office of Strategic Analytics and Institutional Research, the number of CS majors has more than doubled since 2013, from 26 to 53 students. As a result, course enrollments in the major have drastically increased, from 149 students in the fall 2013 semester to 275 this semester.

Professor Ken Basye said that course enrollments and majors have been steadily increasing since he returned to work in Clark’s Math and CS Department three years ago. Both have risen more than 40 percent in the past year alone, he said.

Professor Frederic Green, Chair of the Computer Science Program, attributes this to a spike in employment opportunities in STEM fields in general, but especially in computer science. “In the mid-aughts there was a general downturn in enrollments across the country. Since approximately 2011, things have turned around,” he said.

The major has also grown in diversity. “In computer science, women are underrepresented across the whole country. In the past few years, along with the increase of CS enrollment, we also see more women students, which we are excited about,” said Professor Li Han, the only female professor in the major. “Fifteen years ago when I started, I think for a while we only had one female student. But now I can easily count ten.”

Samantha Hughson (‘19), a junior CS major, works in admissions, as a TA for the CS department, and is the president and co-founder of Clark’s Women in STEM club. She said that she’s seen the number of women in the major double since she’s been at Clark.

Hughson’s work in admissions includes creating personalized outreach videos for admitted students interested in the CS and math programs. “I had to make 52 videos for math and computer science for reaching out to prospective students,” she said, “which is a lot especially for [Clark] not [being] a big-name school in CS.”

Professors Han, Basye, and Green share a sentiment of excitement over the growing popularity of the major. “Overall, we’re really pleased. It gives us a certain amount of what you might call growing pains. That’s kind of a good problem to have as far as we’re concerned,” said Basye.

“It’s not just the quantity that has increased, it’s also the quality and motivation of the students,” said Green. Both Han and Green were proud to share that in the past few years they’ve had students go on to work at big-name companies in the industry such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Others went on to graduate school programs at schools as revered as Carnegie Mellon and Boston University.

The recent influx in highly motivated students has allowed for more undergraduate research and student clubs tied to the program.

In response to having classrooms of 25 students as opposed to 10 to 15 as they’ve had in the past, the program has an ongoing summer LEEP project in which undergraduate TA’s work with professors to develop automated testing software featuring comprehensive test reports which the department then implements to speed up the grading process during the semester.

A massive increase in CS students does not come without its challenges. Many upperclassmen in the major continue to feel that there aren’t enough course sections being offered or faculty to fill these roles.

There are only four core CS faculty at Clark. “With the amount of professors that we have and the fact that one of them is going on sabbatical next semester, we don’t really have a lot of options for electives,” said Hughson. “I’ve finished all of the 100-levels. The only classes I can take now are 200-level electives, and we’re only offered two every semester.”

Jiri Roznovjak, a recent CS graduate, TA for the CS program, and former president of the Computer Science Club, agreed that he wishes upper level electives could be offered more often. He would also like to see more variety in the courses offered. “Your choice is constrained,” he said, “Computer science is a huge field with very different subfields. There are some fields of CS that are not even touched upon at Clark, like computer security. But it’s a huge field and there are so many opportunities in it.”

Both students and faculty in the major agree that they need more long-term professors in order to be able to offer more upper-level courses as well as enough sections of introductory courses to fulfill such a high demand. According to Han, shortly after registration this fall, all spring CS courses were totally full and there was a long waiting list for many of them.

Since then, some changes have been made in course offerings, including opening a new section of Discrete Math (Math 114), a required course for CS majors and minors. Over the Thanksgiving recess, Dean Malsky also gave the department approval to offer an additional section of CSCI 220 Database Management and Systems Design, an upper-level elective, in the spring.

“The only solution is going to be to have more teaching staff,” said Basye. Han added, “We are probably one of the larger majors in Clark now, but we are one of the tiniest programs.”

“Math and CS is one department, so we only get a certain number of professors for both sections,” explained Hughson, “and we have more math professors in that than CS professors.” Basye said there has been talk of separating the Math and Computer Science department for as long as he can remember.

Green and Basye are on the fence about separating the departments, but Han thinks it would be a good idea. “Overlap between CS and Math is probably about the same as between math and physics,” she said. “If we can separate it, it will become apparent that we should have more CS faculty.”

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this article, the number of 200-level electives (as referenced by Hughson) has been increased from two to three for Fall 2018 and beyond.

 

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Growing C.S. Major Sparks Excitement and Frustration