Computer science enrollment caps to stay despite efforts to expand department

In a letter sent to students in March 2014, the Department of Computer Science announced the initiation of new, restrictive registration policies, given a huge surge in demand for the department’s introductory courses.

“The proposed changes to registration ensure that we continue to serve the students taking our courses at the best of our abilities without placing unrealistic demands on our graduate teaching assistants and our faculty,” the letter stated.

The change restricted both Introduction to Computer Science (COMP 11) and Data Structures (COMP 15) to first-years or those who have declared a major in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering or cognitive and brain science.

These new policies sparked frustration from students who did not meet the requirements for registration priority, notably upperclassmen whose majors did not require the classes.

Sophomore Sibonay Koo said she decided to declare a major in computer science in order to get into Web Programming (COMP 20).

“I thought it sounded really interesting, and I also wanted to take a second [computer science] class to determine whether or not I should switch to being a full [computer science] major,” she explained.

Senior Gracie McKenzie, who is majoring in American studies, hoped to take COMP 11 last fall as a prerequisite for web programming. After registering last April, she was subsequently dropped in May due to her status as a non-major and a senior, according to McKenzie.

One year later, the department is still working to develop the best way to tackle enrollment issues.

“What’s happened, interestingly, is that I think that the chaos and uncertainty about the caps and waitlist cause people to self select, and the result has been that everyone who has stuck it out has gotten in, I think, in the end,” Lecturer in Computer Science Mark Sheldon, who teaches COMP 11, said. “I know there were quite a few people who came and talked to me about their chances [of getting in off the waitlist] … and I have to say the majority of people who did that ended up taking something else, and I didn’t feel good about that.”

Similarly, in COMP 15, even with the enrollment waitlist, everyone was let into the class, according to Lecturer in Computer Science Chris Gregg. Just as Sheldon suspected, Gregg also said that the admission of waitlisted students was likely because students who were not sure they would get off the waitlist dropped the class in order to take something else. Both Sheldon and Gregg concur that there is no guarantee the same thing will happen next semester.

In an increasingly technical world, it comes as no surprise that the number of students interested in computer science has increased dramatically in recent years. It frequently tops lists of most profitable majors, and employment prospects are bountiful, especially in comparison to many other traditional liberal arts majors.

Alongside practical reasons, students also recognize that computer science can be applied in many disciplines and does not necessitate becoming a computer scientist or engineer.

“Computational thinking is useful … in the intro course I talk about the big ideas, and they apply much bigger than computing,” Sheldon said.

In the face of booming student interest, the department is working to accommodate more students. According to its website, the department is searching for two tenure-track, full-time lecturers, as well as a full-time visiting lecturer and part-time lecturers.

“It could be as many as four or five new professors, which would make the department able to have more classes,” Gregg said.

The department is in the process of searching for a lecturer who would teach introductory-level courses, which would help alleviate the current problem, Sheldon said.

According to Sheldon, since the tenure-track positions would provide more upper-level classes for majors, these new hires would not be immediately helpful to those at the introductory level. As these professors establish research programs, however, the department may attract more graduate students who play a key role in supporting undergraduate classes.

“In many respects, the [graduate] TAs are a limiting factor in our ability to support students,” Sheldon said. “They help us do student grading and all kinds of things.”

According to Sheldon, the Office of the Provost allotted the department an extra grant this year to support three graduate teaching assistants, in part allowing COMP 11 to gain additional support from graduate students. But there is no indication that this will occur again next year.

In addition, the department is trying to refine its network of undergraduate TAs, who comprise a vital support system for introductory courses. According to Sheldon, COMP 11 currently has 33. As a part of the effort to streamline, the courses rely on automatic grading of projects to give initial rough estimates of marks, as well as online forums like Piazza to manage questions, Gregg said.

As the department continues to expand, however, course caps do not look like they will be disappearing any time soon, Sheldon said.

“We could handle more students if we just didn’t give them the same support,” Sheldon said. “One of the reasons we have the cap is because the faculty is resistant to that idea. We want to give a quality education to as many people as we can.”