While more and more Penn students enroll in entry-level computer science classes, the Computer and Information Science department is struggling to find the resources to keep up.
Penn has seen a major increase in the number of students who want to take computer science classes, especially entry-level courses CIS 110 and 120, but has not found the faculty or space to enable all non-computer science majors to take the classes they want.
This increase in computer science enrollment is not new, nor is it unique to Penn. At Stanford University, computer science is the number one major, and 90 percent of undergrads take at least one computer science class.
In a job market where having knowledge of computer science has become increasingly attractive, students are seeing the benefits of basic computer science in their summer job searches, CIS Department Chair Sampath Kannan said. “They see that computer science is not just an academic discipline, it also is important for day to day life,” he added.
Computer science lecturer Benedict Brown explained that Penn is actually falling behind its Ivy counterparts in terms of the percentage of students who take an introductory computer science class.
“We are below a number of our peers,” Brown said. “About 40 percent of our students take an introductory computer science class, and compared to Princeton at 60 percent and Harvard at about 50 percent, we have room to grow.”
CIS 120 will be capped at 199 students this spring, which is expected to fill up during pre-registration and to have a wait list, due to a limit on the amount of space. With around 350 students currently enrolled in CIS 110, this poses a problem for non-majors who want to continue their education in this field.
CIS lecturer Stephanie Weirich, who will be teaching CIS 120 in the spring, is still confident that they will be able to accommodate everyone who has interest.
In a class where homework is worth 50 percent of the overall grade and many students need the help of undergraduate teaching assistants, some students also think there are not enough TAs to accommodate the increased enrollment.
“One time I waited an hour to have someone help me [with] a homework question,” College sophomore Talia Lieberman said. “I often feel that TAs are rushing to answer my questions so that they can get to as many students as possible.”
The teaching assistants sometimes feel swamped by the number of students seeking help in office hours, although they warn students to not put off homework until the night it is due.
“Sometimes it is overwhelming and there are long lines,” CIS 110 teaching assistant Rebecca Hallac said. ”[Wait times] depend on the difficulty of the homework, and we try to help guide everyone in the right direction — we can’t write everyone’s code for them.”
CIS has already made some changes, including moving some CIS 110 office hours to McClelland Hall in Ware College House, but none of the changes are permanent.
Weirich said that she had been able to teach in a larger-than-usual classroom this semester but will have to revert to a smaller classroom for the spring because of room availability.
Yet professors and department heads realize that the current system is less than ideal, especially because of the challenging nature of the material.
“I’m happy that there is so much interest in computer science,” Kannan said. “But at the same time, teaching these large classes doesn’t allow us to devote the attention to individual students that we would like to normally.”
Nothing is set in stone for the future, but Brown and his colleagues are excited that Penn students are becoming more interested in their field.
“We have a constraint that we aren’t thrilled about,” Brown said. “But we are always pushing for ways to make the best use of resources and to grow.”
Kannan thinks that it is intellectually responsible to allow everyone at Penn to take a computer science class.
“We should be offering a variety of computer science classes to suit many different needs across campus,” Kannan said. “We would need more faculty positions, TA-ships and new lecturers.”
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