While the number of College computer science (CS) majors has significantly increased over the past decade, the number of CS faculty has remained relatively stagnant. The College only graduated 13 CS majors in 2008, but it will graduate 49 this spring. In 2008, CS majors made up 2.6 percent of the student body, while CS faculty made up 2.3 percent of the College’s faculty (based on a full time equivalence). In 2016, the most recent year for which this data is available, however, CS majors made up 7.3 percent of students, while just under 3 percent of faculty worked in the CS department.
This widening gap has presented an array of challenges for the department, including a significant number of overenrolled courses, quickly growing class sizes and inflexible scheduling of core courses. The department faculty, however, have discussed a number of ways to address this rise in majors, including a new approach to organizing introductory courses next fall.
“This is both an exciting and challenging problem for us, and we have had extensive discussions about the best way to address the surge while maintaining high standards of teaching and scholarship,” Professor of CS and Chair of the CS Department Jeannie Albrecht said. “Next year, we are going to experiment with a new format for our introductory courses that involves a large lecture with small labs. We are hopeful that this format will afford us the ability to interact closely with students on an individual basis while potentially serving more students overall.”
Besides the difficulties associated with introductory courses, the current structure of the department’s four major core courses has made it difficult for many potential majors to complete these core courses as quickly as they would like. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of these classes are only offered either in the fall or in the spring. This then bars students from opportunities to take higher-level electives, especially if they are dropped from one or more courses due to over-enrollment. To address this inflexibility, the department plans to offer the core major courses in both the fall and the spring and, in the long term, hire additional faculty to both allow more students to take courses and expand the curriculum as a whole.
In addition, the department plans to experiment with a number of adjustments to its teaching methodology that would allow for it to accommodate more students without sacrificing the intimacy of teaching that it values highly.
“Our department takes pride in providing a personal and intimate learning experience for our students,” Albrecht said. “Not sacrificing this has meant some changes to our teaching methodology in order to cope with the challenges that larger classes create. Space and staffing limitations put constraints on the experiments we can try, but we do have some ideas that we are exploring to help us scale our curriculum. For example, next year we are going to offer larger tutorials, where students will meet with faculty in groups of three or four instead of pairs.”
While the challenges of teaching CS at a small college with a growing demand for majors have proved significant, Albrecht maintained that the benefits of learning CS at a liberal arts school are well worth it. “The advantage of teaching technical subjects like CS in a liberal arts environment is the breadth of knowledge to which students are exposed,” Albrecht said. “Students can incorporate ideas and techniques from a variety of disciplines, including those in the humanities and social sciences, to come up with creative and effective solutions to problems. Even more importantly, students learn to communicate better, both verbally and in their writing.”