Computer science department works to meet growing student demand

The Department of Computer Science (CS) has seen an enormous increase in the number of students taking CS courses over the last five years. Last fall, computer science was determined the most commonly declared major, according to Department Chair Kathleen Fisher.

According to Fisher, as an increasing number of students pursue majors and minors in CS and a growing number of students outside the department and graduate students seek to enroll in CS classes, the department has faced difficulties meeting student demand.

Fisher said that in order to address these issues, the department has carefully recorded the number of student seats per year over the past five years. Between the 2011-2012 academic year and the current academic year, the number of student seats in computer science courses went from 1469 to 3472, which is a more than 136 percent increase over five years, according to Fisher. 

However, Fisher said that some classes’ sizes have to be restricted because certain inflexible resources are limited. Factors such as teaching assistant availability and classroom size, as well as whether the class is designed to be small-group discussion based, often require class sizes to be kept relatively small, she explained.

She said that the department is committed to ensuring that all students who need to take certain courses to graduate can do so, but not every senior is able to take every class they would like to.

According to Fisher, the department goes through class waitlists and finds space for seniors who needed certain courses to graduate by raising limits on class sizes and hiring additional teaching assistant support.

“One of the challenges of having these caps on the classes is that the department actually spends quite a bit of energy and resources managing all of these caps and trying to make sure that the right students get in so that people can graduate,” she said.

However, not all students are able to finish their minors in computer science, Fisher said. Many students in the School of Arts and Sciences register for courses after engineering and graduate students, so required CS courses fill up before Arts and Sciences students can register, she said.

According to Fisher, because first-years and sophomores are prioritized for registration in Comp 11 and Comp 15, the introductory level computer science classes, juniors and seniors who want to take these classes are sometimes not able to. 

Ryan Biette, a sophomore, did not report having trouble getting into introductory computer science courses. However, Biette mentioned that he knows some CS students who were locked out of classes and subsequently forced to register for classes that might not directly match their interests.

Fisher said this is an ongoing consideration for the department.

“We can’t really solve this problem until we grow as a department,” she said. “We’ve been hiring a lot of outside instructors to offer more electives. They’re enriching the department offerings and they’re area experts in the topic that they’re teaching, so they provide a lot of richness, but they’re not a permanent solution.”  

According to Fisher, the department is in the hiring process to fill four open positions, while one new professor has already been hired and will start in September 2017. The open positions include one for computer science in any subject area at any level of seniority, one joint position with mechanical engineering for robotics, one joint position with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in cybersecurity and policy and one lecturer position, according to Fisher.

Fisher said that lecturers are an important component of meeting student demand because their sole responsibility is teaching.

“As professors, part of our job is teaching and part of our job is research, so we have a teaching load that’s lower, whereas instructors have a teaching load that’s six courses a year. So hiring a [lecturer] is a bonanza in terms of adding to the department’s teaching capacity,” she said.

However, Fisher said that because most universities operate on the same hiring cycles, it can be difficult to find enough professors to fill every open position at the right time.

Hiring CS faculty comes with unique challenges that may not affect other departments in the same way, as the growth of job opportunities in the professional computer science field have resulted in increased competition for universities trying to fill vacancies, according to Fisher.

“For people who are kind of on the fence, the lure of the better pay is pulling more of them into industry. The fact that jobs are so prevalent in computer science right now is causing more people to not go to graduate school but just go into industry,” Fisher said.

Alex Lenail (E ’16), who majored in computer science and served on a student committee in charge of reviewing new professors, explained the difficulty of hiring new faculty in a world increasingly in need of computer science professionals.

“Computer science is becoming more popular everywhere,” Lenail said. “And the reason for that is largely driven by the fact that jobs are more plentiful in computer science.”

However, Lenail explained that Tufts deserves more credit than it sometimes gets for dealing with the demand problem.

“The Tufts administration was really clever and updated the Halligan building, where computer science is, just as the increase was starting to happen,” he said. “[The department] hired additional faculty and fast tracked current faculty to tenure track positions and have been doing a really good job of meeting demand most of the way, just not all the way.”

Ultimately, Fisher said the department is working toward a solution to the difficulty in meeting student demand, adding that creating larger classes may result in a different computer science experience, but not necessarily a worse one.

Fisher explained that a change like this ensures that as many students as possible are able to pursue their passion for computer science, as the department is not looking to cap the major or institute an application process.

“We think that [capping is] a really bad choice,” she said. “We think it’s bad for Tufts, we think it’s bad for the students. It’s bad for Tufts in that it’s hard to be a first-rate university if you can’t guarantee that any student who shows up can major in computer science.”

Fisher explained that an application process might deter students that the department is seeking to attract from entering the program.

“Computer science, like many other STEM fields, has a problem with not having enough women and other underrepresented minorities, and experience suggests that if you put more hoops in the way that those are the first people who are not going to come in the door,” she said. “We are committed as a department to enabling everybody who wants to major in computer science to major in computer science.”