The Bowdoin Orient

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Administration addresses high demand for CS spring courses

Dozens of students were unable to enroll in next semester’s computer science courses because of skyrocketing demand for the department’s classes. 

Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd and her office met with computer science faculty during registration to ensure that all junior and senior majors will be able to register for courses they need during the add/drop period, but many sophomores intending to major in computer science were left without any options.

Computer science professors have agreed to teach additional sections of their classes and plan to allow their class sizes to surpass the limits set at the beginning of registration. However, students and faculty are concerned that increasing class sizes and course offerings without adding more professors will negatively impact the quality of Bowdoin’s computer science curriculum instruction.

Judd wrote in an email to the Orient that the Office of Academic Affairs is working with the computer science department to write registration rules that will ensure “that the right populations of students have the highest priority for the appropriate courses.” She wrote that sophomores who intend to declare majors are one of these populations. 

According to the Office of the Registrar, all computer science courses were filled after Round One of registration. Social and Economic Networks, taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Mohammad Irfan, was the most sought after course; it received about 50 requests for only 22 spots. The College has since added a second section of this course, which will also be taught by Irfan. Judd wrote that it is not unusual for her office to add or remove sections of courses during Round Two of registration. “It’s usual for a class to be over enrolled,” said Maddie Bustamante ’17, a cofounder of Bowdoin Women in Computer Science (BWICS). “But when there’s this many overenrolled, it’s just crazy.”

Bustamante added that this reality is particularly difficult for potential sophomore majors, who will have to load up on computer science courses once they have priority during junior and senior years.  “All the people who started later need all the classes they could get without overloading themselves,” she said. “If they don’t get both classes for next term, they might have to take three classes in another term, which is a very heavy workload in computer science.” The situation is even more difficult for sophomores who plan on studying abroad. “If you want go abroad, unless you can count on having some of your courses abroad towards major credit, then you come back from being abroad and need to take three courses of [computer science] every semester until you graduate,” said Majercik. 

Currently there are widespread worries among the affected students about whether they will be able to count on getting classes they want in the future. With this low chance of getting in, many students can feel discouraged from majoring or minoring in computer science. 

“My class was up to 39, but a couple of students unregistered because they thought it was hopeless.” said Majercik. “They asked me: ‘do I have a chance of even getting in?’ What they were saying was that they are trying to decide whether they should register for Nature-inspired Computation and hope maybe they’ll be lucky. Or they should not do that, and maybe that’s a waste of registration slot.  Spend their slot on another course so that they don’t get locked out of that course.”

Women have been long been underrepresented in computer science courses at the College. About 10 percent of Bowdoin majors now are women, eight points below the national average of 18 percent. The recent difficulties with registration have hurt BWICS’ effort to recruit more women to study computer science.

“It’s been very frustrating for us.” said Bustamante. “We are trying really hard to bring women into CS courses. It becomes much more difficult to bring women into it, when the chance of getting our courses is this low.”

The College’s inability to meet demand in the Department of Computer Science is not new this year. Like many colleges around the country, Bowdoin has witnessed rapidly growing interest in computer science courses in recent years. Last year, the Orient reported that students were experiencing difficulty registering for the department’s introductory-level courses. The College resolved the problem by expanding class sizes.

“We’ve started to see an increase in interest in intro classes a couple of years ago,” said Toma. “We used to teach two intro classes every semester with 22 each. As the demand went up, we doubled the class size. So we are teaching two intro classes capped at 44 each. Then last semester, we also doubled the size of two classes of Data Structures.

Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown predicted that the increased demand for courses will be unlikely to reside. The number, he said, may only get worse as more students are unable to take computer science courses. Upper-level courses, which require more personal interaction than introductory-level courses, could have particular challenges catering to rising demands.

According to Chown, the Data Structures course places a natural limit on how many students can take upper-level courses, because it is a prerequisite for nearly all of the advanced classes. With twice as many students completing Data Structure last year, 100-130 students may try to enroll for upper level courses in the Fall of 2015, which Chown said is two to three times more students than the department has enrolled in those courses previous years.

“It’s carrying over,” said Toma. “Of course high demand in intro class means high demand in everything else in the sequence. Next semester it means higher demand for everything essentially.”

Majercik agreed that the department will soon be facing an insufficient number of upper level courses.

 “We’ve enlarged our capacity at the beginning of the pipeline, but we still haven’t enlarged enough at the end of the pipeline.”

Aware of these looming issues, students have become involved in efforts to encourage the College to take action. Last fall 80 students signed a petition for the College to hire an additional professor in the department. This year, another petition with 23 prospective majors or minors was emailed to Judd. It asked for Judd to communicate with students who could not get into the courses they wanted to. 

“We are concerned that women who were on the path to major or minor in computer science previously will be deterred by the quality of such over-enrolled classes, and by the fact that they may need to change their future plans in terms of classes, studying abroad, and exploring other fields,” representatives for BWICS wrote in an email to Judd this week. 

“The main response I got was very defensive,” said Caroline Pierce ’16, who led the petition last year, “I think it’s a problem they are working on, but I don’t know how high a priority this is for them.”

“Another thing that frustrated us was that they said it is a temporary problem,” said Bustamante. “Essentially we want to grow the department and make it more interesting and attractive to people. If they just take it as a temporary problem, that itself is a problem. We need more professors, more resources, to attract more people.”

Some students expressed their concern over the quality of education they will receive in overenrolled courses.

“I’m not worried in the sense that I will not graduate,” said Pierce. “But I’m worried in the sense that I don’t think I will be able to take the classes that I want to take or leave here feeling like I haven’t got enough out of the computer science department and my computer science major.”

“I’ve been seeing these guys working all the time,” said Liam Taylor ’17. “They work, perhaps unreasonably, to just try to get the things done, to answer all the questions. I know my professor has expanded his office hours. He is staying in the evening twice a week. And that’s kind of unusual in the first place.”

According to Judd, her office does not believe that the increased class sizes will significantly diminish the quality of the department’s courses. 

“We are confident that students will have the quality of experience that we all expect of a Bowdoin education,” she said. “The numbers are larger than we have historically seen in computer science and so the classes may feel different to seniors who began when the department was one of the smallest majors in the College. The class sizes for the spring are still well within the Bowdoin range of small classes.”

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