In response to increased demand, the Computer and Information Science department will welcome several changes in the coming semesters.
Interest in technology education has been reflected in the number of students who enroll in computer science classes each year. In 2007 there were 240 declared computer science majors — in 2015, the number has more than doubled to 610 students. Part of the increase stems from the major now being open to students in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“That is part of the liberal arts education today at Penn — knowing a little bit about technology and appreciating how it can change the things you do,” said incoming Engineering dean Vijay Kumar, who will take office July 1. “It’s our mission to teach you that.”
Yet the growing interest in computer science has proven to be a challenge for not only the computer science department itself, but also for the Engineering school as a whole, which has struggled to fit students in large enough classrooms, especially for classes of over 200 students.
Although the department has moved some of the larger entry level classes into a larger room in Leidy 120, the space problem has continued into higher level computer science classes as well.
“The number of classrooms available at Penn is not enough for the expanding population,” Chair of the Computer Science Department Sampath Kannan said. “I have a feeling this is a University-wide problem, partly because Penn doesn’t prioritize building classrooms.”
Engineering junior and Computer Science major Fifi Yeung agrees that Penn prioritizes research and innovation over a need for larger classroom space.
“They keep building new buildings but not putting lecture halls in them,” Yeung said. “They built the Singh center, which was really nice, but they didn’t put any lecture halls in it. They focus so much on research.”
Yeung’s plans for fulfilling her major requirements have been affected by the lack of space. Although she completed the first two homework assignments for Computer and Information Science 110, she still was not able to enroll in the class, a fact which she found more frustrating because many students do not attend the lectures. Now, she's a credit behind in completing her major.
With more students in entry level classes like CIS 110 and 120, the department has had to increase the number of undergraduate TAs, who are instrumental in helping students work through the homework, which can count up to 50 percent of the grade, in weekly office hours.
“The Engineering school has been generous in terms of TA resources,” CIS 120 professor Stephanie Weirich said. “For CIS 110 and 120, we try and keep a 10:1 ratio.”
As a CIS 121 TA, Yeung has experienced angry students, especially those without a strong coding background, in office hours who complain that the TAs don’t help as much as they could. Many students have also complained about the long lines that build up while students wait for TA assistance.
Kannan has proposed an alternative to these office hours in which one TA will help a group of students who are all struggling with the same issue. CIS 110 office hours are headed in this direction, and Yeung has also begun helping students in this way to try and help as many students as possible.
“When we see people run into the same problem in homework, we will run a mini lecture,” Yeung said. “We hope that people will ask us questions in recitation, but they tend not to.”
Yeung has seen some of the teams of TAs double in recent years, and she feels that its hard to train a lot of newer members. “A lot of experienced TAs need to go to upper level classes, so the people who TA the lower level classes haven’t seen all the problems as frequently," she said.
However, overcrowding isn’t the main problem for the Computer and Information Science department. Kannan feels that the issue is more central to the increased interest of non-computer science majors who want a class that is more tailored to their desire to learn computer literacy.
A few months ago, Kannan and CIS professor Steve Zdancewic attended an Undergraduate Assembly meeting to discuss their idea for a new type of computer science class, which would increase the subject's role on campus in response to the increased interest.
“We went to the UA meeting to get a feel for what kinds of things the students would be interested in seeing,” Zdancewic said. “There was a lot of excitement and positive feedback.”
From this UA meeting, the department decided to start structuring a new class to be introduced in the fall of 2016, which will “give students the experience they want,” Kannan said.
While the specifics of this class are still in the works, it could include broad topics of computer science or a course on web development rather than data analysis or straight programming, which early computer science classes currently cover.
Geared for non-majors looking for technological experience, the course would not be a requirement for computer science majors, which the department hopes would ease registration. It would also require less weekly work than is required for entry-level computer science classes.
Computer science faculty and students hope the department will continue to see growth not only in the number of students, but for faculty as well.
“It’s hard to predict, but I can imagine continued growth and more outreach in terms of people who are not going to be in engineering but want to get something.” Weirich said. “Computer science is a new literacy, and if you can’t put things together in a code, you are lacking certain tools that are so powerful.”
“The department is hoping to grow over the next five or six years by adding more faculty,” Zdancewic said. “We are also thinking about which areas in terms of discipline are important for that strategic vision of our long term plans.”
There are other changes that are coming sooner to the Engineering School. The Towne Library, which closed last year amidst disappointment from Engineering students, will soon open with new high-tech classrooms as well as a remodeled library space, part of which will be used for CIS 110 office hours this upcoming fall.
While these challenges may not have an immediate solution, the CIS department hopes the new developments will create growth in research and education alike.
“We see great and exciting areas of growth in computer science,” Kannan said. “We see a lot of research where computer science is the key player — it interacts with practically every other discipline. We want to grow because of the research potential, and at the same time, it will help us teach classes.”
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