The computer science (CS) department is struggling to accommodate an unexpected surge in student interest for CS courses this spring semester.
In an email sent to CS students on Jan. 27, Joanne Selinski, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, reported that out of the total 2,000 available seats filled, there were 500 waitlisted students.
As a result, some students are concerned about whether they will be able to graduate on time.
Selinski said that the shortage is partially due to greater student interest in computer science.
“We don’t control who wants to take our classes; we don’t control who comes into the major or minor, so once they do, then we have to find a way to accommodate them,” she said.
She explained that this semester’s over-enrollment was due to the unexpected number of students who had switched into the computer science major or added it as a second major.
Sophomore Jack Karyo, who described the situation as a gross miscalculation, stressed that it was still not the department’s fault.
“They don’t have the say over who can change into what majors,” he said. “They really just didn’t see this influx into the computer science major as a whole, which caused these classes to be totally overfilled.”
Karyo attributed the rising interest in computer science to the booming technology sector.
“The tech industry as a whole in recent years has just been exploding, and there are more and more open computer science jobs that need to be filled,” he said. “They just didn’t do a great job predicting how fast it has been growing.”
Some of the growth in the department comes from students in other majors like biomedical engineering who need to take computer science courses.
“There’s so many non-declared CS people taking our classes,” Selinski said. “That puts an extra burden on what’s going on. If a senior decides they want to take a course, that’s great, but they register first, and then someone who’s in the major might not get into a course, and that’s not so great.”
When asked if she thought they should limit enrollment within the department, freshman Coco Li advocated for keeping open admittance, but she identified another problem.
“If they are able to get people to teach those classes, I don’t see why not,” Li said. “The only problem is it’s incredibly hard to get TAs for basic-level CS classes. CS people want to teach upper level classes, and then you’re left with a lot of people who don’t want to TA because of the time commitment.”
Karyo also identified a problem with the availability of teaching assistants in the department.
“I do understand that’s a problem they have in the department, but they’ve got to do something to fix it,” Karyo said. “Maybe through increasing the motivation for students to become TAs, because a lot of TA jobs have awful pay. That’s going to dissuade [students] from being a TA as opposed to going out and getting an internship.”
Selinski said that she also saw the lack of teaching assistants as a large challenge to overcome, pointing out that an increase in teaching faculty wouldn’t help without a tandem increase in TAs.
“Our PhD students have no problem getting research funding, so they don’t need to work as a TA,” she said. “We try to hire our own students to help out as course assistants, but I can’t force a junior or a senior to be a course assistant.”
Selinski also said that the department usually hires about 90-100 course assistants per semester but that this was not enough to accommodate demand.
Most of them are undergraduates or Master’s students, but usually there are about 20 PhD students too. She said that they were struggling to determine how to close that gap.
Li indicated that she was happy to see that the department was working towards a solution.
“They expanded class sizes for Intermediate [Programming], and I think they took off the limit for CS-only Data Structures,” she said. “They sent out an email saying they are talking to the school about expanding the CS program classes, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job to make sure that CS students are able to get their major requirements done first.”
Although she is concerned about students being able to meet graduation requirements, Selinski said part of the problem stems from a disparity in course popularity.
“Part of the problem is the electives,” she said. “There are certain ones that are popular, and there are certain ones that are not as popular. It’s not that there aren’t courses to take, it’s that they can’t always take the courses they want to take.”
Selinski identified the popularity of certain courses as the reason that demand for some classes became so high.
“We can’t accommodate every student in all the popular courses,” she said. “It’s not that you’re not going to graduate, you just might not graduate with exactly the set of courses you want.”
However, Selinski identified one policy that the department is considering implementing on enrollment next semester which would protect the interests of the program’s majors.
“The idea is that for the initial registration period, we make things CS students only so that they have priority,” Selinski said. “Not something that any of us want to do, but we might not have a choice. We definitely have to protect the interests of the people that are declared so that they can graduate on time.”
Sophomore Lalit Varada, who is a computer science minor, has personally witnessed students being affected by the problem of overenrollement within the CS department.
“I have seen senior and Master’s students ask the professor to be added to class as they cannot graduate without the class,” Varada wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “I am lucky as I still have some time; But it must be a stressful time for those who need to be in those classes.”
Varada expressed his frustration with the situation.
“It’s outrageous that the waitlist is the size of the class, and I don’t think it was like this in the fall,” he wrote.
Sanat Deshpande, who recently switched majors from biomedical engineering to computer science, agreed with Karyo that students are becoming increasingly more interested in computer science.
“There’s been a movement of a lot of people taking CS classes or switching over because of the increasing trend of CS being seen as useful for any field, which it is,” Deshpande said.
Despite the ongoing struggle within the department, sophomore Alex Knowlton, a CS major, identified positive aspects of the situation.
“It’s always a little disheartening to see the classes you want to take fill up before you’re even given the chance to apply for them,” he wrote. “But in another sense, it’s kind of cool to be in a department that is so active and so sought-after.”
He wrote that the leaders of the department are optimistic about its future, and that he shared their sentiment.
“We have a new building, are getting more new faculty each year and have students and professors that are clearly motivated and eager,” Knowlton wrote. “The slight hiccups are a small price to pay while the department evolves to meet the nearly insatiable need.”