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University News

In down economy, CS 17 enrollment soars

Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2011

Enrollment in CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction” has more than doubled this year, with professors attributing the rise to continued economic uncertainty. Last year, 73 students were enrolled in the class — up just slightly from the previous year’s enrollment of 60 students. As of Sunday night, 154 students were enrolled.

The course, commonly known as CS 17, is part of a full-year sequence in which students are then expected to complete CSCI 0180: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction” in the spring. CS 17 is one of three introductory computer science classes offered, along with CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” and CSCI 0190: “Accelerated Introduction to Computer Science,” which did not see significant enrollment increases. Most students enrolled in CS 17 plan to concentrate in computer science, so its rising enrollment likely indicates a future rise in computer science concentrators, said Andries van Dam, professor of computer science.

The overwhelming interest in CS 17 made for a “chaotic” first week of classes, said Claire Mathieu, professor of computer science, who is teaching the course for the third year in a row. Originally, the class was held in a room meant to hold 65 people.

“The first day we had to use two classrooms, and I taught two half-classes,” Mathieu said. “It was chaotic, but exciting.”

Professors in the Department of Computer Science noted the impact periodic developments in technology and the economy have had on the concentration’s enrollments over the years.

“In the past, as the economy went down, our enrollments went down and as the economy went up, our enrollments went up,” said Thomas Doeppner,  vice chair of the Department of Computer Science and director of undergraduate studies for the department. “A few years ago the popular conception was there were no jobs in computer science. Now the economy is down, and people seem to think it’s one of the few places where there are still jobs,” he said.

“In the early ’80s, I taught well over 600 students for a couple semesters. Personal computing was just starting, and there was a lot of curiosity about it. It hadn’t yet become an appliance,” van Dam said. “Enrollments have cycled since then. Around 2000, our enrollment went up significantly. It had to do with Silicon Valley and startups and getting rich.”

“Then we had the dot bomb,” he said. “Coincidentally or not, we saw enrollments drop in the mid-2000s. In the last couple years, enrollments have gone back up. It’s interesting to speculate why.”

Van Dam also pointed to Silicon Valley’s active campus recruiting schedule as a draw for prospective students in the computer science field. “They’re beating down the doors to recruit here,” van Dam said. “Kids and their parents must know that.”

Van Dam and Doeppner both mentioned efforts by the admission office to highlight Brown’s strengths in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields — as a factor in the increased level of undergraduate interest in computer science. “There’s been a move to show the rest of the world that Brown is not just a liberal arts school, that there’s science here as well,” Doeppner said.

“I’m happy to be in this predicament but want to make sure we’ve got the resources to handle all these students. There simply isn’t enough space in this building for all our students,” Doeppner said. “We think we can handle them now, but we’re at our limits, and we don’t want to put enrollment limits on our courses so we’re having to scramble.”

CSCI 0020: “The Digital World,” a basic course for non-concentrators, has seen a similar rise in enrollment — from 59 to 165. The class “removes the mystery surrounding computers” and teaches basic HTML, Photoshop and other skills, according to the course description. Last year, the course was titled “Concepts and Challenges of Computer Science.”

Cody Mello ’15, who is currently enrolled in CS 17 and describes computer science as his “primary interest,” said he chose to take CS 17 because “CS 15 concentrated on object-oriented programming,” and he’s “already been exposed to object-oriented programming in the past so (he) wanted to learn more about functional programming because it’s becoming a bit more popular lately.”

Mello also said the availability of jobs in the computer science world has played a part in rising enrollments. “People are always saying ‘Oh, you’re doing CS? There’s a lot of money and job security in that field,'” he said. “I expect someday everyone will learn how to program because it’s a useful tool and people are combining CS with other things — computational biology, for instance.”

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