5Cs plan to expand computer science as Harvey Mudd struggles to handle demand for majors

A female college student sits at a desk, working at her computer. A sign next to her reads "CS 5 Grutor."
CS major Hongfei Chen PZ ’21, works at grutoring, which is computer science tutoring at Harvey Mudd College. (Elinor Aspegren • The Student Life)

Computer science has skyrocketed in popularity at the 5Cs in recent years, pushing the limits of Harvey Mudd College’s resources and dampening the prospects of students at other colleges hoping to major in CS.

Now, new Scripps College, Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College students interested in computer science are being told they may not get to explore the field as fully as they’d like — and the schools are scrambling to expand their own CS offerings.

The three schools, which lack CS majors of their own and largely rely on Mudd’s program, informed their prospective students who indicated an interest in CS before the May 1 college decision deadline this spring that they could no longer guarantee those students’ placement in HMC computer science courses or the Mudd CS major, according to the deans of faculty of the respective colleges.

“Scripps was my top choice,” Hana Ahmed SC ’23 said. “Then suddenly I had to re-evaluate everything.”

Ahmed eventually decided to attend Scripps anyway due to the “liberal arts presence” and the resources of the consortium. She said she will still try to major in CS, but will also explore math and other majors.

“If I couldn’t do CS at Scripps, I probably wouldn’t have come to Scripps,” said Wendy Zhang SC ’22, whose CS major application was accepted this year.

“There was a time in the past when some colleges did not have mathematics departments, an idea that seems hard to fathom today, and I suspect likewise there will come a time when we’ll look back and wonder how it could be that three of the five colleges did not have their own distinct home for computing . . . To my mind, the question is not if that future will come to pass, but when.” – Melissa O’Neill, HMC CS department chair

Pomona College offers its own computer science major but is not accepting any off-campus majors at this time, according to Scripps Dean of Faculty Amy Marcus-Newhall. Yuqing Melanie Wu, Pomona’s CS department chair, did not respond to a request for comment.

HMC Dean of Faculty Lisa Sullivan led a computer science task force in May 2018 with deans and representatives from all 5Cs to address CS overcrowding, according to HMC CS department chair Melissa O’Neill. 

The task force reached “a broad understanding that Mudd and Pomona cannot singlehandedly support continued exponentially rising demand for off-campus majors in CS,” O’Neill said.

Despite the strain on the CS department, O’Neill said the HMC computer science department was able to accept all 31 off-campus students who applied — 14 from CMC, 10 from Pitzer and seven from Scripps — into the computer science major this year. The department reviews all off-campus applications at the same time once a year, she said.

The number is “significant,” she said; it’s equal to the total number of CS majors at HMC just a few years ago.

“I think it speaks well to our department’s commitment to the ideals of the 5Cs and our collegiality towards our sister colleges,” O’Neill said.

The situation at the 5Cs reflects the growing demand for CS education nationwide, and CS departments are struggling to keep up with the growth.

“We can’t have a college where students are unable to major in CS.” – Winston Ou, Scripps CS professor

While the average number of computer science majors per department nationwide increased by 35 percent from 2015 to 2018, there was only a 13 percent increase in tenure-track faculty in the same time period, according to an August 2019 report by the Computing Research Association.

The number of HMC CS majors at Scripps increased from just one to 13 from the class of 2014 to 2019, and there are currently 14 declared majors in the class of 2021, Marcus-Newhall said via email. Seven Scripps students have majored in CS at Pomona between 2014 and 2019, she said.

Ten CMC students from the class of 2019 majored in computer science at Mudd; there are 22 declared CS majors in the class of 2020, according to CMC Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin.

Pitzer did not disclose how many CS majors it has.

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This year, Scripps hired its first CS faculty member, Douglas Goodwin, for the Fletcher Jones Scholar in Computation Chair, Marcus-Newhall said. 

Scripps created the position with a $2 million endowed fund to “facilitate the design and implementation of new courses that teach computational skills,” according to the Scripps news release.

Goodwin is teaching “Computational Photography” and “Alt Comp Sci: Analogs/Algorithms” this semester, according to the course registration portal. The Scripps math department is also teaching a two-semester introductory CS sequence, Marcus-Newhall said.

CMC currently offers a computer science sequence — the equivalent of a minor — and launched a data science sequence last year. However, the department and CMC may make a decision this year on whether to turn the data science sequence into a full major, Uvin said via email. 

CMC hired two new CS professors this academic year, Michael Izbicki and Sarah Cannon. Izbicki is currently teaching “Data Mining” and said he will also teach an introductory Python course. Cannon will teach math and computer science classes, according to her faculty page.

Scripps faculty are working on developing a CS minor and a data science minor, Marcus-Newhall said.

Scripps professor Winston Ou, who is teaching an introductory Python class and is involved in the push for a data science minor, thinks Scripps will have a CS major eventually.

“It’s my understanding that … lots of liberal arts colleges are trying to hire people and are unsuccessful,” Ou said. “It’s not going to be easy and I’m not sure how we’re going to do it, but we have to. We can’t have a college where students are unable to major in CS.”

Pitzer Dean of Faculty Allen Omoto said the school is “having discussions and formulating plans to provide more classes that have an emphasis on data science or computational methods” to address the demand for CS.

“There was a time in the past when some colleges did not have mathematics departments, an idea that seems hard to fathom today, and I suspect likewise there will come a time when we’ll look back and wonder how it could be that three of the five colleges did not have their own distinct home for computing,” O’Neill said. “To my mind, the question is not if that future will come to pass, but when.”

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Jaimie Ding

Jaimie Ding SC '21 is from Vancouver, Washington. She currently serves as TSL's news editor ad previously worked as a news writer.

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