Graphics, University News

Enrollment for non-concentrator CS courses soars

Department expands non-concentrator class options in light of demand from students, faculty

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

One in five current undergraduate students will have taken a computer science course before graduation, said Ugur Cetintemel, professor of computer science and chair of the department.

While enrollment in CS classes has seen record growth in recent years, many students end up in classes intended for non-concentrators. As a result, the number of CS courses offered for non-concentrators has also increased, said Tom Doeppner, associate research professor of computer science and vice chair of the department.

A new course, CSCI 0100: “Data Fluency for All,” will be offered this fall and serves as  an introduction to data science for non-concentrators, Doeppner said, adding that the department expects a lot of interest in the new course.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to have more courses available for non-concentrators,” he said, adding that this is a move away from a focus on concentrators.

For many years, only CSCI 0020: “The Digital World” and CSCI 0040: “Introduction to Scientific Computing and Problem Solving” were offered for non-concentrators. CSCI 0040 targeted engineering students, and CSCI 0020 was offered for the rest of the student body.

But six years ago, CSCI 0931: “Introduction to Computation for the Humanities and Social Sciences” was developed to give computing skills to social sciences and humanities concentrators without a “full-blown computing course,” Doeppner said. Later CSCI 0080: “A First Byte of Computer Science” was created by Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman as an “introduction to computer science as an academic discipline,” Doeppner added.

The growth in non-concentrator classes is a result of the demand from both students and faculty members, Cetintemel said.

Sometimes, faculty members approach the CS department asking which classes their students should take, Cetintemel said. Once there is a significant demand, the CS department tries to decide whether to tweak a course or create a new course depending on the intensity of the need.

“These classes teach computational thinking — a structured way of solving problems — and programming is the way we implement that,” he said. “You are trying to create a recipe that would give a solution to any complex problem.”

Despite its common perception, “computer science does not equal programming,” he added.

“Computing is a real enabler,” Cetintemel said. “Regardless what area you’re working on, if you can use computing and information, you’ll be at a competitive advantage. You’ll be able to do things others can not.”

Doeppner attributed the increasing popularity of classes to the economy. Not only do people see taking CS classes as gaining a skill that leverages a successful job search, but also enrollment correlates with the economy’s performance, Doeppner said. “When the economy — particularly the high tech economy — is doing well, our enrollments go up,” he said.

Enrollment increased dramatically during the dot-com boom and fell during the dot-com bust, Doeppner said. But even during these “low periods,” CS students were still getting job offers, though the perception was that there were fewer jobs, he said.

“Now the tech economy is doing well, and our enrollment is far greater than it has ever been,” he added. This growth in CS enrollment is a “nationwide phenomenon,” Doeppner said.

Several students stated that their choice to take CS classes was influenced by the job market.

Eddy Ones ’17 took CSCI 0040 the spring of his first year to satisfy a requirement for his mechanical engineering concentration. But he realized “it wasn’t enough for me,” he said, adding that he has since taken several other CS classes.

“The thought process behind computer science is transferable to other fields,” Ones said. “It can open opportunities in the job market” in a society that is shifting toward a technology focus, he said.

Similarly, Austen Sharpe ’18, an environmental science concentrator, took CSCI 0020 her first year, motivating her to take more CS classes. She decided against concentrating in CS because of the difficulty of finding appropriate study abroad programs and the lack of flexibility of course selection, Sharpe said.  “I viewed computer science as a creative tool, as another way to express your ideas,” Sharpe said. It’s like “an outlet” for a lot of different concentrators, she added.