Computer Science Departments Under Strain

One hundred and fourteen students may seem like an impossible number to enroll in one section of a class here at the 5Cs, but that many students are currently taking CSCI060: Principles of Computer Science, the second course in Harvey Mudd College’s computer science introductory sequence.

The computer science departments at HMC and Pomona College have grown substantially over the past few years, putting a strain on their professors and resources.

Enrollment in computer science courses at HMC has grown 19-30 percent each year since 2010, department chair Ran Libeskind-Hadas said. Pomona computer science department chair Everett Bull said that the number of students enrolled in lower division courses at Pomona has doubled in the past four years.

“People see computer science as a subject that may lead to employment. Also, technology is coming into all aspects of life even more than it had been before, and people are interested in understanding the technology and using it,” Bull said. “The third reason why our department is growing is we’re more visible, and there’s a ripple effect. Students come in and they like it, and they tell all their friends.”

Bull said that more students are interested in majoring in computer science, and there also has been an increase in students pursuing minors or gaining a degree in an entirely different discipline.

“The vast majority of students from other campuses who take CS 5 [Introduction to Computer Science] are majoring in other disciplines,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “Many are juniors or seniors who would like to take a computer science course. A lot of our own Harvey Mudd students take beyond the intro courses.”

As the computer industry continues to create new jobs while the availability of opportunities in other fields suffers, more students have become interested in pursuing computer science degrees. According to the Taulbee survey conducted by the Computer Research Association, there was close to a 10 percent increase from the previous year in computer science enrollments in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.

Both HMC and Pomona, the only two 5Cs that offer a computer science major, have seen increasing interest from students at the other three colleges. Claremont McKenna College has a small computer science department with one faculty member. It offers the three-course introductory sequence and a few electives, but most major requirements must be fulfilled at HMC or Pomona. 

Despite an increase in students studying computer science, Claremont students need not worry about finding jobs after graduation, according to computer science and mathematics major Xanda Schofield HM ’13. Bull agreed that there is no shortage of jobs for computer science majors.

“The increase in computer science majors is nothing compared to the increase in jobs available for them,” Bull said. “I think there are enough jobs to go around that at least in the near future there won’t be a glut of computer science majors looking for jobs.”

However, with increasing interest comes a need for more resources, and both HMC and Pomona have faced challenges in keeping up with their computer science departments’ growth.  

“School administration tends not to be able to hire new faculty at the rate of growth that we’re having,” Schofield said. “So it’s been a bit of a mess, but Harvey Mudd is trying to catch up with that now.”

Although it is one of the most popular departments at HMC, computer science has one of the smallest faculties, with ten tenure-track faculty members and two or three visiting next year, Libeskind-Hadas said. Pomona’s department, which cooperates closely with HMC’s, is significantly smaller, with only four full-time faculty appointments this year and another being added in fall 2013, Bull said.

While HMC does not restrict enrollment in its first two introductory courses and only turns away junior and senior non-majors, Pomona has turned away students from even the introductory sequence.  

“We generally, as best we can, increase the sizes of the classes, but in some cases there are just only so many seats in the lab or only so many seats in the classroom,” Bull said, regarding Pomona’s computer science classes. “There are some students who are being turned away, sometimes from the intro classes, sometimes from the advanced classes.”

Though two-thirds of HMC’s classes have fewer than twenty students, according to its website, there have been several introductory lecture sections with over 100 students, and the department has tried to accommodate increasing numbers by hiring more graders and tutors and upgrading labs to add space.

“The challenge is that we end up teaching sections of courses that are larger than we would like,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “We would like to have our upper division courses in particular at 20 to 25 students, but we don’t have the resources to teach these courses at 20 to 25 students. We’re doing what we can to make that work, and we certainly feel that the administration is aware of the pressures and is doing what they can to help us.”

Schofield said that registering for classes can become complicated. Some students receive e-mails stating guidelines regarding the classes that they can sign up for because not every class has a place for every interested student. In addition, not all electives are offered because professors are busy teaching introductory classes.

Certain computer science electives fill up so rapidly that even upperclassmen majors cannot gain a spot in desired classes. Brian Hentschel PO ’14, a computer science major, could not enroll in the elective Artificial Intelligence last fall, one of the more popular Pomona computer science classes. Despite his early registration time, more than thirty PERM requests had been submitted before Hentschel’s. Registration roadblocks have not yet altered his ability to fulfill major requirements, but he said that they have changed many students’ plans regarding course enrollment each semester.

Both Libeskind-Hadas and Bull expressed excitement regarding their departments’ growth, but they each stated that this type of growth cannot continue limitlessly.

“One of the things we’re wondering is when the bubble will burst,” Bull said. “In the last economic downturn, there was an interest in computer science and then it slacked off. It didn’t go back to where it was before, but it did draw back.”

“It definitely can’t continue growing at this rate, but I do think that it will level off,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “It is a bright spot in the economy; it’s a part of the economy that is really thriving.”

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