Step 26: Attract Students to Computer Science

I’m pressed for time this week, so let me just tell a story.

When I first came to Oxy, one of the first things I need to do was understand what students thought of computer science. To that end, I sought out one of the student clubs on campus. Open Source is a relatively new club, formed only three years ago by a group of students interested in computer science and programming. Since I am not teaching any computer science classes this semester, the club served as the main channel for me to meet other interested students. A couple of the students on the board of the club was also in my cognitive-science-heavy AI class, and through them I learned more about the computer science culture at Oxy.

Or rather, the lack thereof. It turns out that most students are unaware that Oxy even has a computer science minor, and are overall baffled by what it means to study computer science (or math, for that matter…). Most of the students who are in the computer science minor program are math and physics majors, with cognitive science majors a distant third. This composition is significant, since it meant that students may not be as interested in the aspects of computer science with a broader appeal, and similar would not ask for those topics to be included in the curriculum.

Partly recognizing this, Open Source starting hosting discussions in their meetings. I went to these, partially because I want to know what those meetings were like, but also to broaden my exposure to students (or rather, students’ exposure to me). The first meeting was about security and privacy, which to me should be interesting to students in sociology and politics. To my surprise, despite having a mailing list with over 150 subscribers, the total number of members who came was about five. The next meeting, about artificial intelligence, had a similar turnout.

Lest you want to blame the students for not doing a good job of advertising, I was invited by an RA to talk to some freshmen about computer science. The turnout: one additional student who I didn’t already know, despite there having been posters, and despite me telling my cognitive science class that I will be giving the talk. The single most successful meeting that Open Source held this semester was one where students to got to meet members of the Computer Science Advisory Committee, for which 18 students showed up, out of which I had yet to meet five. It was a good group, relatively diverse, although the math/physics/engineering bias was still present.

So I was pretty worried when this week came around. This is registration week at Oxy, and I’m teaching a new computer science course next semester. The course is designed to become the entry point for a revamped computer science curriculum, and is aimed at absolute beginners. In particular, wanting to address the lack of diversity in computer science right off the bat, I restricted the course to students who have not already taken a computer science course at Oxy, not even the language-focused half-semester courses – the same courses that currently serve as the entry point to the computer science minor, and that 69 students are currently enrolled in. Which is to say that I’m rejecting, a priori, the students most likely to be interested in computer science. It’s not a particularly small class for a liberal arts college – there are 32 seats – and I was really worried about what message it would send to the administration if the class was only half full.

Registration opened yesterday (Monday) at 8:00am.

By noon, there were 11 students registered for the course.

By midnight, there were 21 students registered, and the freshmen registration time hadn’t even come up yet.

By noon today, the course was full.

As of right now (about 30 minutes before midnight), there are three students on the wait list, and I have heard from seven more who expressed disappointment at the lack of seats. It’s a curious mix of students too: not just math and physics majors, but students in DWA (our equivalent of international affairs) and economics, several students in art, and a smattering in politics, biology, and psychology (in addition to a number of undeclared students). The roster seems to be diverse by all other metrics – it’s roughly split evenly between all four classes (ie. freshmen, sophomore, etc.) and between genders (going by name). If I had ethnicity information I would have looked at that too, but all in all it looks like the course is off to a good start.

I don’t know if there is a moral to this story. One easy way to explain this is that Oxy is primed for computer science, and that students were simply waiting for a course that tackled the right issues. Another, complimentary explanation is that the existing computer science course wasn’t sold properly – I explicitly say that the course will involve manipulating images, sounds, web apps, and other kinds of media. More cynically, a third explanation is that the course satisfies the lab science core requirement, which the existing courses don’t, and that made all the difference. More likely, it was all three, plus some others like the faculty I know nudging their students in the direction of this course.

So now I have to deal with wait lists and student complaints, but that’s a good problem to have.

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Step 26: Attract Students to Computer Science

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