University News

CS dept. seeks additional funds amid enrollment surge

Departmental capital campaign aiming to bolster resources could start this spring

By
Contributing Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2014

With 214 students enrolled in CSCI 0170 this semester, Head TA Indy Prentice ’15 said there is limited space for labs and TA hours.

Responding to increasing enrollment rates in computer science courses, the Department of Computer Science is planning a fundraising campaign to alleviate strain on departmental resources, said Andy van Dam, professor of computer science.

Van Dam, who teaches CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” will help lead the effort, which is still in its ideation stage but could begin as early as next semester if the case statement for the campaign receives approval this semester.

“We are certainly not unique in being resource-constrained, but the numbers are still pretty overwhelming. The need has been recognized, and people seem sympathetic to doing something. Now the question is what, when, how, who,” van Dam said.

More than 15 percent of undergraduates are taking a computer science class this semester, said Tom Doeppner, director of undergraduate studies for the computer science concentration. The total number of graduating seniors in computer science and joint computer science concentrations rose from 48 students in 2008 to 114 this past May, reflecting a national trend of the field’s growing popularity, he added.

“STEM is becoming more popular, and students are getting more exposure. There are a lot of jobs in computer science, and it has always been the case that people with a computer science degree from Brown tend to do well in the job market,” Doeppner said.

Introductory course enrollment numbers reflect this trend: Currently, 322 students are enrolled in CS 15, 214 students are enrolled in CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction” and 161 students enrolled in CSCI 0020: “The Digital World.” The size of CS 15 has prompted the course to move out of MacMillan 117 to Salomon 101, the largest lecture hall on campus.

To provide the individual attention necessary for students to succeed, these introductory courses rely heavily on teaching assistants to offer TA hours, grade homework and post notes and homework online.

“Students need lots of individual help since they’re practicing skills that they’ve never done before,” said CS 15 Head TA Gregory Chatzinoff ’15. “We try to give each student around 15 minutes each (during TA hours) and help them as best as we can in that time period.”

Doeppner said the standard student-TA ratio in computer science courses at Brown is 8-to-1. This allows the teaching assistants to support students beyond TA hours, which students and TAs said sometimes have lines that last for hours.

“The TAs have a strong presence online and through email, which has been incredibly helpful,” said Laura Shea ’18, a student in CS 17.

Anonymous donors contributed $1 million to the computer science department to support its undergraduate TA program, President Christina Paxson wrote in a campus-wide email recapping the May 2014 Corporation meeting. The donation will allow the department’s TA budget to increase for the first time since 2006.

In addition to long wait times for help from TAs, large class sizes also present problems in terms of space for labs and for TA hours. CS 17 Head TA Indy Prentice ’15 said up to five courses hold TA hours in the same room simultaneously, making it harder for students to concentrate. Students who come to the SunLab to do work sometimes have difficulty finding an available computer because labs occur in the space every day of the week, said Prentice, who also oversees the entire computer science TA program as one of two Meta TAs.

The Center for Information Technology holds space for computer science classes, labs, Computing and Information Services and more. “Our goal is to take over the CIT building. We need to effectively own all the space,” Doeppner said.

“We’re excited that computer science has become so popular and that there are so many people interested in it,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science Amy Greenwald, who teaches CS 17. “We want the University to recognize the importance of computer science and to give us more resources so that we can grow even beyond” where the department is now, she said.

 

A previous version of this article misstated the number of computer science Meta TAs this year. There are two, not three. The Herald regrets the error.

  • johnlonergan

    I’m just spitballing here, but is it possible to bring in additional teaching resources using, I dunno, this newfangled thing called the “Internet”?

    • Shriram Krishnamurthi

      Those who would prefer a MOOC education already know where to find it. The reason we have long queues of students seeking help is because we take the trouble to actually answer their questions, one-on-one, giving them the education they deserve. As someone who has actually taught a MOOC, it’s unclear to me how that medium is a reasonable substitute for what we offer in person.

      • another alum

        …Because video conferencing is never a viable means for one on one situations?

        …Because long lines and wasting time are a preferable options?

        …Because online teaching resources as we know it must only be MOOCS? …Because you lack the imagination to think of obvious alternatives? …Because “ok” is good enough?

        I agree, the issue isn’t about MOOC or no MOOC. It’s about the abysmal attitude present in many Brunonians when thinking about actually changing and innovating rather than sitting around in panel discussions talking about it.

        • meldon

          Video conferencing is a viable means for one on one, unfortunately this still requires paying someone to do it.

          CS141 has made a large move to being based online. It has actually cut the amount of time we spend grading down a lot, but unfortunately largely limits us to multiple choice and set response questions.

          Shriram’s classes have tried a different approach of automatically grading code and having students give each other feedback on code, attempting to get the best of both worlds. The problem here arises from degraded feedback caused by students being forced to give feedback, but not having any motivation to do so, resulting in many students simply giving the feedback “Looks good to me”.

          Other classes, like CS17, have tried using online tools like Piazza for students to answer each others questions, but with heavily enforced policies on cheating and little incentive to risk it to help another student, it often defaults to TAs answering these questions as well.

          Many classes in the CS department are trying to change and innovate to cut down on the amount of time TAs have to spend performing certain tasks, however the key component of a TAs job is holding office hours, which, regardless of whether they are held in person or over video, still requires people to do it. In classes with several hundred students, you need a large number of TAs simply to answer questions and we haven’t been able to find a good way around that. Even when things do work for one class, its a process to get other classes to adopt them without a guarantee that it will work. This, combined with labs, help sessions, and many other tasks drive the need for TAs up.

          If alternatives are so obvious, just let Shriram know, he’s always been happy to try new things in his classes.

          • Shriram Krishnamurthi

            I am indeed more than happy to get constructive suggestions. That’s why I signed my name.

            And I do agree with most of what you’ve written.

            I want to push back, however, against one of your remarks, regarding peer-review.

            1. I want to make it clear (to our alumni friends, and other readers) that we did NOT use the peer review towards grading. This way, any deficiencies with the quality of peer review would not affect any students directly.

            2. We did an extensive analysis of the data from all reviews of both courses last year. A lot of reviews did in fact do far better than LGTM (“looks good to me”).

            One thing that slightly degraded the quality of feedback is that there was no rubric to guide people to writing reviews. This was intentional: we wanted to see how people would do in a completely free-form setting, to establish a baseline of quality. It turned out that the single hardest thing to review without a rubric is work that is really good. [Maybe that’s why you didn’t get any useful feedback? <-;] This year we _are_ using a rubric and are curious to see what impact that has.

            For those who are interested, our findings from last year are written up here:

            http://cs.brown.edu/~sk/Publications/Papers/Published/pkf-ifpr-tests-tf-prog/

        • Shriram Krishnamurthi

          Hi, another alum.

          > Because video conferencing is never a viable means for one on one situations?

          Because it solves the wrong problem. The problem stated here is the wait time. If the time is waiting for a person to be available, that problem does not disappear by changing the medium.

          Of course you can video one-to-many. And you can TA one-to-many, too. I hold my office hours in a TA room (rather than my own office), and when multiple students have the same question, I answer that question to the group. But that’s not common.

          The rest of your message continues with more false dichotomies and non-solutions.

          Got a concrete suggestion, write to me. I could have posted anonymously but I didn’t; you can find me easily enough and tell me what “obvious” things I’m missing.

          • another alum

            Video conferencing allows a couple of unmentioned possibilities that with just some thought and reflection would have crystallized for you.

            1. hiring of remote TAs

            2. integration of volunteer alumni experts in the space.

            3. a more efficient queue for students. better to wait while on the computer doing hw than in the hallways unproductively

            Just 3 suggestions in 3 minutes that solve 4! problems (1) sourcing of talent; (2) budget constraints; (3) alumni-student interaction (or lack of); (4) time inefficiencies. Am I still solving the wrong problem(s)?

            As far as solutions go, I invite you to revisit the MOOC http://news360.com/article/259107849#

          • Shriram Krishnamurthi

            Yes, you’re still solving the wrong problems.

            (1) Hire them from where, exactly? And with exactly the right skill set for highly specialized classes? Good luck—find me the workforce for my courses and I’ll hire them. (I already outsource other labor — with a set of contractors and employees in various cities and even other countries — so I’d happily hire more if I can find qualified ones w/ time to spare. Hasn’t happened yet.)

            (2) We get plenty of alums coming through. I’ve worked on integrating them into classes in ways that use their talents and fits their availability. Nobody has yet expressed interest in being a TA to help students with daily homework problems. (Perhaps you’re volunteering? Which classes are you willing to answer questions for every evening?)

            (3) They put their name in a queue and get back to work. Also, you’re assuming the only way to work is at a computer. Etc.

            Anyway, I’m sure you’ll have more choice ad hominem remarks in your next response. I’ll exit the field and let you have the last word. Good day.

          • another alum

            (1) Plenty of startups working on this problem. Airpair for example. If you’re limited to looking in Providence, yeah, its going to be hard. Utilizing video conferencing allows you to cast a wider net and pay on a hourly basis if at all (see alums)

            (2) Key operative being “Alums that come through.” But what about the vast majority that are elsewhere? Let’s face it, many alums that are in industry are no where near Providence. I’m sure there are alums that would be glad to help in a “hw help” aspect if they’re recognized. Moreover, alumni interaction is directly linked to donations.

            (3) No, I’m assuming that walking over to the room, being told I’d have to wait, and coming back later is a waste of time walking around and even more in disruption to work flow. I’m also going to guess most students prefer to work on their computer.

            The issues here (because you’ve still failed to define anything other than “you’re wrong”) are funding, manpower, inability to get talent, dearth of talent in current location, and poor logistical management. Examining the platform is precisely how we can overcome these challenges.

            You started off this thread intimating the false dichotomy that online paradigms of education can’t be “one on one” or a “quality education.” To that, I provided you an article that shows otherwise, reporting on MIT’s research in the problem. You provided no response other than closed mindedness (when you so proclaim to be open, too oft the case at Brown). This attitude is precisely what I criticized in the first post. Good day to you.

  • Shriram Krishnamurthi

    Correction: 20.7% of all Brown undergrads are taking a computer science course this semester.