Before winter break, Caroline Pierce ’16 created a petition asking the College to consider hiring a new computer science professor.
After visiting multiple levels of classes and collecting around 80 signatures, Pierce presented the petition to President Barry Mills.
As the Orient reported in November 1, interest in the department has been growing at Bowdoin over the last few years, and Pierce said the goal of the petition was to make sure the administration understood that the continued support and growth of the department is something that many students care about.
The number of computer science majors has increased from seven in in the Class of 2012 to 25 in the Class of 2015.
Even as the College has doubled the number of sections being taught this year, the department faculty have found themselves in the position of having to turn many students away from introductory classes. Additionally, higher demand for introductory courses limits the number of advanced courses that can be taught while simultaneously growing the pool of students who are eligible and interested in taking those courses.
“[The petition] wasn’t to say that resources should only be going to computer sciences,” said Pierce, “but I wanted to make the administration aware that it’s an issue students have seen.”
Eric Chown, chair of the department of computer science, understands the frustration of students who want to take the classes and are turned away, and acknowledges the tough position the department is in because they lack the resources to teach all the students who want to take their courses.
Alana Weinstein ’15, whose signature was among those collected by Pierce, initially only planned on taking a few classes to shore up her knowledge of computer programming for application in other fields, but is now considering a minor in the department. Weinstein spoke about the difficulty in predicting what classes she will be able to take in the future as the department deals with elevated interest.
“You basically have no idea what’s going to be offered,” she said, “because there’s hardly any professors.”
Weinstein said she would like to see more professors added to the department so they could offer a greater variety of classes to more advanced students.
Pierce said that although she started the petition as a student-driven, awareness-based campaign, she felt that Mills initially perceived the petition as a faculty-driven request for funding.
“I think there was a bit of miscommunication…it wasn’t necessarily the most positive meeting,” said Pierce, though she added that once Mills became more aware of the intent behind the petition, he was more receptive.
Chown understands that there are ups and downs in student interest in every department, but feels that computer science is not only here for the long term, but that demand is only going to rise.
“The question is, are we in an up, or is this more permanent?” said Chown. “Are computers a fad? Probably not.”
There are four faculty members in the computer science department, and for many years when a professor went on sabbatical, they were not replaced. The College has agreed to replace professors on leave in response to the increased demand.
Eight computer science courses were offered at Bowdoin for this semester. Of the eight, four are overenrolled and one is full. One section of the introductory course is full, while the other is overenrolled.
The College has also taken steps to acknowledge the importance of technology in the liberal arts through its Digital and Computational Studies Initiative that, according to the Bowdoin website, “invites faculty across the College to work together to integrate new technologies, methodologies and forms of knowledge production into our curriculum and our scholarship.”
Chown said that the importance of computational knowledge for graduates finding careers outside Bowdoin cannot be denied, and believes that through his support for the faculty program, Mills showed he understands that graduates are more likely to be successful if they are comfortable with basic programming.
Pierce said she is not entirely sure what the next step in this process will be, but she said that another meeting with Mills is a possibility. However, the petition did its job of making sure the administration knows that this is an issue students care about.
“Mills did say at the end of the meeting that it was something that should be addressed and it makes sense that students would be unhappy that they might not have the classes they want,” said Pierce. “Hopefully it’ll go somewhere—I’m just not sure which direction.”
Chown acknowledges that the addition of a faculty member would be welcome, but said he has also spoken to the department about finding new ways to meet the needs of as many students as possible. Despite the challenges it presents, Chown agreed the expansion of interest in the computer sciences is ultimately a good problem for the department to have.
“The fact is, if we can show that this is what students want, what students need, then those faculty will have to come,” said Chown.