Computer science surpasses IR as most popular major

Computer science has become the most popular undergraduate major at Tufts, ahead of international relations, which had been the biggest major at the university for the past decade.

There were 466 declared computer science majors in the spring of last semester — slightly more than the 464 declared international relations majors, according to Associate Provost for Institutional Research and Evaluation Dawn Geronimo Terkla.

The number of computer science majors at the university has been steadily increasing over the years, Terkla said; in 2005, computer science was the 14th largest major, with 92 declared students, and stayed that way until 2013, when it became the 13th largest major with 121 declared students.

Chair of the Department of Computer Science Soha Hassoun said the department has anticipated the growing interest in the major at Tufts, which matches similar trends across colleges nationwide.

“We’ve been looking at these numbers for the last five years, and we’ve seen the increases — first in the intro classes, then in some of the required classes and then in the upper level electives,” Hassoun said. “So we knew this was going to happen.”

The major’s growth in popularity, however, has impacted course sizes and the department’s resources, posing challenges for faculty, teaching assistants and students, she added.

“The load for faculty has increased tremendously,” Hassoun said. “Faculty are now teaching mostly between 40 to 120 people per class, so instead of dealing with 20 emails, they have to deal with 120 emails. But they have been very excited to have all these majors.”

Despite the increased class size for lectures in the computer science department, Hassoun said labs have remained at approximately 18 to 22 students per section.

“We’ve maintained a more collaborative experience with the students in the intro courses, and that’s what’s kept students engaged in the major,” she said.

The department has also continued to hire undergraduate, upper-level students to work as teaching assistants (TAs) for students in lower-level courses, according to Hassoun. She estimated that 95 percent of the computer science majors from the Class of 2015 served as TAs at some point as during their undergraduate careers.

Junior Eliza Schreibman, a computer science major, said that while she wishes her computer science classes were smaller, the professors work to accommodate everyone, even in big classes.

“The professor of COMP 40 [Machine Structures and Assembly Language Programming] knows everyone’s names and often comes in at 11 p.m.,” she said.

Sophomore Ben Nissan, also a computer science major, said the small recitations and the dedication of the faculty and TAs make up for the large class sizes.

“There’s so much individual attention and a huge sense of camaraderie between the students,” he said. “You don’t get the sense that you’re lost or have no resources.”

Increased student interest in computer science has also caused the department to place restrictions on its introductory courses since March of last year, according to a 2014 Daily article. These changes confined enrollment in both Introduction to Computer Science (COMP 11) and Data Structures (COMP 15) to students who have declared a major in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering or cognitive and brain science, and to those who had declared relevant minors or were first-years.

“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,” a March 2014 letter from the Department of Computer Science to the student body said. 

While many students were frustrated by the restrictions, Nissan said the enrollment cap encourages more people to pursue a major or minor in computer science.

“[The cap] means that a lot more people get sucked into the major because they can’t take it later on,” he said. “I had no computer science experience in high school, so coming to Tufts I had the incentive [to] take it [my first year] before it was too late.”

Computer science lecturer Mark Sheldon told the Daily in March that the course caps do not look like they will be disappearing any time soon.

“We could handle more students if we just didn’t give them the same support,” he 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.

The computer science department hopes to receive additional resources so that every student who wants to take a computer science course can do so, Hassoun said.

The department also aims to increase the number of graduate students employed as TAs and to enhance its research portfolio to improve its computer science curriculum, according to Hassoun.

“We would love to increase the teaching capacity of our current department and teach more upper-level electives, but a lot of the faculty are being utilized to teach the required courses,” she said.

Both Schreibman and Nissan said the department appears to be struggling with the resources it receives from Tufts. A lack of resources could prevent the department from hiring more professors and TAs and from splitting the courses into additional sections.

“I remember taking COMP 11 my first year, and I could get a TA within an hour even when an assignment was due,” Schreibman said. “Now, you can see the Halligan Helper queue is 30 people deep, making it tough for people in the class and the TAs.”

Schreibman, who is a TA for the data structures class, said she finally got the position after applying for four semesters.

“Finally I got it, even though the department desperately needs more TAs,” she said. ” I know so many people who are overqualified, but it’s just so hard to get [hired].”

Nissan said he believes the perceived lack of TAs is due to insufficient funding, which is largely out of the department’s control at this time.

“The department deserves the ability to do better, to do more,” he said.

It is up to the university to allow the department to accommodate the rapidly increasing interest in computer science, Hassoun said.

“The national trends say the number of majors have increased, but the interesting question is how other schools have managed to deal with that,” she said. “Some schools have spun off a school of computing or increased the size of the department. We’re hoping the university will take some action to address the growth in computer science.”


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