Demand for computer science courses tests US campuses

Demand for computer science courses tests US campuses

The University of California at Berkeley is launching a new computer and data science college in what it expects will become a national model for coping with growing fields and often unmet demand.

UC Berkeley, like many US campuses, has been overwhelmed by the rapid increase in interest in computer science in recent years, with a huge increase in the number of graduates without the necessary staff and infrastructure.

California’s flagship public institution sees the creation of the UC Berkeley College of Computing, Data Science, and Society, the first new college in more than 50 years, as a way to help the campus cope by consolidating the flood of demand and thus assigning it better.

A key step will be to address the data science element through partnerships with faculty in other fields, said John DeNero, associate dean of graduate studies at the new computer science college. These scholars may not teach computer programming, but they have enough experience in the computer-related aspects of their specialties to teach courses on data usage, he said.

Data science is fundamentally more scalable on the Berkeley campus because it involves faculty from around the world, instead of primarily faculty from one department, said Dr. DeNero. Part of the plan, to make sure that computer science is accessible to the wide range of people who want it, is to make sure that data science and computer science together have a lot of capacity, instead of putting everything into computer science.

Overall, the challenge facing UC Berkeley and US universities seems daunting. The average number of students in computer science fields nationwide has increased more than sixfold from its 2006 level, according to the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) latest annual compilation.

UC Berkeley has nearly 2,000 computer and data science graduates a year, up from just 200 a decade ago, and now accounts for nearly a quarter of total undergraduate degrees. Data science accounts for nearly half of those 2,000 graduates, after holding virtually no share just five years ago.

CRA said that since this nationwide enrollment surge began nearly 20 years ago, the number of US faculty in computer science fields has grown by only about half the rate of growth in the number of students and the number of tenured faculty had grown by only about a tenth of the growth rate of enrollment.

The university population continues to grow, but there is less growth in educational resources, said Elizabeth Bizot, a research associate at the CRA.

UC Berkeley sets standards often followed at other institutions, and consolidating its computer science fields into a new college isn’t the only step it’s taking. After a long internal debate, said Dr. DeNero, UC Berkeley was also changing the two main ways students are admitted as computer science graduates.

Those accepted into computer science as part of their university admissions will now be guaranteed a slot, starting next academic year, ending a system whereby they had to achieve a grade point average threshold during a series of initial courses . And for those students looking to transition into a computer science major following their acceptance into college, the opportunity will only be granted in their sophomore year and the decision will be based on a holistic assessment rather than a purely GPA-driven metric, he said. Dr. DeNero.

These changes, combined with the recruitment of faculty from other majors to teach data science courses, should help keep enrollment growth within the major steady, or even reduce it somewhat, he said.

Such balancing efforts in higher education can be difficult and increase the potential for antagonisms with faculty outside of computer science, said Maria Klawe, outgoing president of Harvey Mudd College.

Harvey Mudd is a private liberal arts college in California with a focus on science and engineering. About 200 students graduate each year, and those in computer science now make up about half, compared to only about 25 of these students a decade ago.

Dr. Klawe has been trying to meet that surge of demand by expanding Harvey Mudd’s overall size, from about 800 students to 900, so he can hire 10 more faculty, almost all dedicated to computer science. Finishing a 17-year term as president, he said he loomed as the most controversial thing I’ve done while here.

The faculty had to understand, however, that the alternative would be to meet student demand for computer science majors by not replacing outgoing faculty in fields such as engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry, where the number of majors has dwindled in significantly, Dr. Klawe said.

And politically, that would be even worse than increasing the size of the college, he said.

Dr. DeNero faces some similar realities. Even with the changes at UC Berkeley, some people would be disappointed, he said. There will still be students who would like to major in computer science but can’t, said Dr. DeNero, because there is a capacity challenge.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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