Department of Computer Science struggles with course over-enrollment

Over the past five years, enrollment in the Computer Science Department has doubled. However, the number of faculty, graduate TAs, lab space and funding in the Computer Science Department has not increased proportionally.

The discrepancy between student interest and resources is particularly noticeable in classes such as Lecturer Ming Chow’s Web Programming class, where increased enrollment has left students sitting on the floor.

“The maximum enrollment was 75,” Chow said. “It was closed in two days of registration. If you are an engineer you got in, but none of the liberal arts students got in.”

On top of the regular waitlist of 10 students, Chow created an additional list of interested students which contains another 30 names.

“As it stands right now, a lot of people are still desperate to take the class,” he said. “I have students sitting on the floor. The students are not giving up. They really want to take the class.”

For the first time this semester, in order to allow underclassman a chance to enroll in Introduction to Computer Science, the department reserved 75 seats specifically for freshman, according to the class’s professor, Mark Sheldon.

“If I was forced to make a decision for the class I told the students up front that we will prefer freshman and sophomores over juniors and seniors,” Sheldon said. “Most of the time juniors and seniors are taking it as an elective, and we love to have them, but it hurts them the least if they can’t take it from a graduation point of view.”

Currently, the class is at capacity with 300 students, but an additional 30 want to enroll and Sheldon hopes they will be able to do so.

For freshman Isha Patnaik, reserving 75 spaces meant that she could take the class which is required for her intended Cognitive and Brain Sciences major.

“I know that if they didn’t then I wouldn’t have been able to enroll,” Patnaik said.

Overall, the biggest issue with rising enrollment is trying to provide the best educational experience for everyone, Sheldon said.

“Different courses all use the same labs, which tends to be a really tough constraint,” he said. “We want the students to have the labs, because we feel that is a vital part of the course. We want students to get individual attention and when you have 300 students you cannot get that in a lecture.”

Although it is her biggest class, Patnaik still finds that because of TAs and the use of online modules such as Piazza, she still can receive individual attention.

“Because we have so many TAs, when people post questions on Piazza they get answered really quickly and teachers are accessible that way,” she said.

According to the Chair of the Computer Science Department Soha Hassoun, over-enrollment in computer science courses has been a problem throughout the department this semester.

“First we saw the explosion at the lower levels, but now we are seeing it at the upper level courses, even [in] our electives,” Hassoun said.

In 2009 the department graduated 24 students in computer science. In 2013, 49 students graduated, and by 2015 there will be around 80, Hassoun said. In classes like Machine Structure and Assembly-language Programming, enrollment between 2012 and 2013 jumped from 60 to 144 students.

“It’s been very difficult for the department to adjust to the growth,” Hassoun said. “We have approached our dean, Dean Abriola, to help us figure out what to do in terms of increasing the resources.”

Hassoun described how one of the biggest problems for the department is the unique mixture of involvement of students from both The School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering.

“Two thirds of our population – our students in our classes and in our majors – is from The School of Arts and Sciences,” Hassoun said. “But the Department of Computer Science actually sits in the School of Engineering. All of our resources come from the School of Engineering.”

According to Hassoun, there is no clear solution to the problem.

“We are at a very critical moment in our department history where we are really trying to think about what it is that we could do differently to allow us to continue to provide the services that we have for the students,” she said. “On one hand, I don’t want to burden the faculty with more than they can handle, and on the other hand, I don’t want to deny services to students that are interested in the topic.”

According to Sheldon, the community within the department is a terrific asset to students; however he hopes it does not change with increasing enrollment.

“The community in the department here is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that with the numbers going up, because that is part of what makes it such a nice place to be here.”

Chow listed four reasons why the Department of Computer Science at Tufts is so popular: great teaching, the economy, word of mouth, and the culture. Chow explained that after taking a class many students not only recommend the class to others, but also stay and help the next group of students.

For classes like web programming, also referred to as web development, Robert Carter, a senior engineer enrolled in the class, explained additional reasons for student interest.

“Web development is not only a job in a class, it is also something that I think is going to be more and more required of us as people in the workforce,” he said. “Everything is moving to the web very quickly now, and knowing web development is eventually going to be something that is expected of you.”

According to Hassoun, the explosive growth in computing is not just at Tufts but nationwide.

“Tufts is tracking the national trend right on par,” she said. “There shouldn’t be anything surprising about this data – it’s similar to everywhere in the country.”

Overall, Hassoun is glad so many students are interested in taking computer science classes.

“It is actually one of the most wonderful things that has happened to us,” she said. “We love the opportunity to impact students. We love the opportunity to make a difference in the career choices that those students make.”

However, Chow believes it leaves the department with a serious dilemma.

“Obviously it’s a good problem to have, but at the end of the day it is still a problem,” he said.