Interest in coding and computer science is on the rise, and Penn’s Computer and Information Science Department is working to accommodate this newfound popularity.
At Penn, the number of computer science majors in the School of Engineering has increased threefold within the last 10 years, from 250 majors across the undergraduate student body in 2007 to 800 majors in 2017, department chair Sampath Kannan said.
Across universities nationwide, the number of CIS majors has more than doubled since 2011, and more than tripled since 2006, according to the Computing Research Association. At Stanford University and Princeton University, CIS is now the most popular major, reported.
Recognizing this growing interest in CIS, the Undergraduate Assembly is currently working to create an introductory level course that will be less challenging than CIS 110 — a course which outgoing UA president Kat McKay calls a “weed-out” class meant to deter students who do not have a high level of investment.
“There’s already CIS 110, which is an intro course, but that’s taught as a sequence that’s part of the CIS major [and minor] program,” McKay said. “But there are a lot of people at Penn that don’t have the hours in their weekly calendar to take that course.”
“There’s a desire from many students to understand CIS, and so this course would be focused more on breadth than depth,” McKay added. “The focus would be on broad application of CIS as opposed to getting a major or a minor in it.”
About 40 percent of Penn’s undergraduate population takes at least one course in CIS, Kannan said. This amount is in line with national trends. The number of non-majors in CIS courses increased at an equal or greater rate than the increase in majors between 2005 and 2015, the CRA reported.
College freshman Isabella Pilotta is a self-described humanities enthusiast. The furthest she has gone in using computer science for a class has been to upload discussion posts onto a blog. Nonetheless, she wants to learn how to code.
“I think right now, it’s a really viable skill to have and a lot of people at Penn do know how to code,” she said. “So I think it’s useful and would like to learn it at some point.”
Last year, the Obama administration launched the “Computer Science for All” initiative, urging students of all ages and interests to learn coding, which has become a sought-after skill in the workforce.
Kannan hopes to get the number of students taking a CIS course close to 100 percent, and he believes it can happen without making it a requirement.
“Computational thinking is an important aspect of reasoning that everyone should have,” Kannan said. “Even if we didn’t require [students to take a course in CIS], I think the interest is there among students, and it will happen organically.”
Kannan also stressed the difference between computer science and coding, noting that a large component of the former deals with theory.
“Coding is a skill, and computer science is about a lot of concepts as well as skill,” Kannan said. “At the deepest level, CIS asks questions like ‘what are the possible ways you can transform information from one form to another, and what can you learn from this transformation?’”
The computer science department is currently working to create a “richer selection” of CIS courses that will appeal to a more diverse student body, in partnership with various departments in the University. It has several courses cross-listed with the anthropology, biology, psychology and linguistics departments and is collaborating with the Wharton School to develop a minor in the Statistics Department.
It recently created a course, co-taught by a CIS professor and an anthropology professor, that teaches students how to design online visualizations and animations of archeological excavations.
“This seemed to be the kind of thing that anthropology students would love,” Kannan said. “So maybe some students may not want to take a pure programming course, but we could imagine making [CIS] more relevant to them by teaching a course that exactly fits their interests.”