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Computer science enrollment doubles since 2005

An estimated 12 percent of all undergraduates are currently enrolled in a computer science class

The Department of Computer Science has seen a significant increase in introductory course enrollment numbers and concentrators in recent years, a change faculty members and students attributed to strong employment prospects and widening interest in developing better technological skill sets.

The number of students enrolled in computer science courses has doubled since the 2005-06 academic year, according to figures from the Office of Institutional Research. Recent years have also seen a spike in the number of computer science concentrators, with the number of concentrators increasing by 35 percent between the class of 2011 and the class of 2012, and 22 percent between the class of 2012 and the class of 2013, which had 66 computer science concentrators.

This surge mirrors a national upward trend in the number of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in computer science. The average number of computer science majors at U.S. colleges and universities rose 29 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a study from the Computing Research Association. National data from the class of 2013 was not yet available.

Enrollment figures for the University’s introductory computer science courses have also seen a spike.

CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” has 279 enrolled students this semester, up from 173 last fall and 54 percent higher than fall 2008, according to data provided by the Office of the Registrar.

CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction,” has an estimated 188 enrolled students this fall, a significant jump from last year’s enrollment of 118 and a 67 percent rise from fall 2008, according to the Office of the Registrar.

CSCI 0190: “Accelerated Introduction to Computer Science” has an estimated 40 students, largely unchanged from last fall’s total of 38 students but 33 percent higher than fall 2011, according to the Office of the Registrar.

Faculty members and teaching assistants in the department said the enrollment figures have been unexpectedly high. This semester’s enrollments in computer science courses represent a 25 percent increase from last year, wrote Roberto Tamassia, department chair and professor of computer science, in an email to The Herald.

Tamassia estimated that introductory computer courses this semester have enrolled about 12 percent of all undergraduates.

Some faculty members and students attributed the department’s rising popularity to a belief that a computer science degree yields strong employment prospects.

Tamassia highlighted a May 11 column in the Seattle Times by Edward Lazowska ’72, in which Lazowska — a computer science professor at the University of Washington — touts the professional benefits of majoring in computer science.

“Computer science: It’s where the jobs are. It’s also where the future is,” Lazowska wrote in the column.

Almost all computer science concentrators receive job offers, Tamassia wrote — software companies, biotech, engineering, financial and media firms all compete for computer science undergraduates.

“There’s a lot of demand for CS grads from Brown,” said Aisha Ferrazares ’15, one of the head TAs for CSCI 0150. Tech companies such as Dropbox, Adobe and Mozilla comprised a large share of the employers attending the University’s fall career fair last month.

The computer and mathematical fields added nearly 230,000 jobs between 2006 and 2010, according to a January 2012 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report projected that these fields will add nearly 780,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2020.

But some faculty members and students said job prospects are not the only reason behind the rise in computer science enrollment.

“Students are probably also realizing that there are a lot of interesting things happening in our world that have to do with computers and related technology,” wrote Professor of Computer Science David Laidlaw in an email to The Herald. “Being connected with that is appealing.”

Some faculty members wrote that this semester’s enrollment figures in introductory courses are somewhat surprising. CSCI 0150 saw such overflow that the course had to move from MacMillan Hall 117, where the class was taught in recent years, to Salomon 101. Managing the new space “was not easy,” Ferrazares said.

The department expanded the number of TAs for CSCI 0150 from 23 to 30 this semester to keep its ideal 10-to-1 student-to-TA ratio,  Ferrazares said.

Some faculty members suggested the upsurge in numbers could strain departmental resources.

“It’s not quite clear where the funding for these additional TAs will come from, so some events in the department may be a little more frugal this year,” Laidlaw wrote.

“We need more instructional lab space,” Tamassia wrote, adding that the department will need to hire more faculty members if course enrollments continue to rise at the current pace.

The recently released draft of President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan prioritized making Brown community members more “fluent with data,” emphasizing technology’s role in higher education and stressing the creation of a “virtual campus” as the University moves forward.

Tamassia wrote that the department will work to accommodate the increased number of students enrolled in computer science courses, adding that he looks forward to “a future where computational thinking and innovation are at the forefront of research and education on our campus.”


-With reporting by Mathias Heller


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