Comp Sci surge strains department

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

David Liu ’17 always wanted to be a filmmaker. After enrolling in Computer Science 201 last term, he had a change of heart. Now a computer science major taking Computer Science 223, “Data Structures and Programming Techniques,” Liu has found that others are also starting to flock to the subject.

For now, at least, that means some in Computer Science 223 may have to sit on the floor.

Enrollment in the course has nearly tripled in the last three years, said Stanley Eisenstat, director of undergraduate studies in the Computer Science Department. The 169 students listed on OCS as taking the course are an indicator of heightened student interest in the subject. The department’s other introductory courses, Computer Science 112 and Computer Science 201, have also seen an enrollment surge.

According to Eisenstat, the number of computer science majors has risen sharply in past years — from 15 graduating seniors three years ago, to 25, then 38; there are 49 predicted graduates this year. He said the rise might be due, in part, to recent efforts by the Yale admissions office to recruit high school seniors with an aptitude for STEM, and to student anxiety about the job market. Eisenstat said he expects the current junior class to produce even more computer science majors than the 49 anticipated this year, and for there to be even more majors in the current sophomore class.

But computer science professor Joan Feigenbaum said the enrollment surge might also be attributable to periods of growth in the technology industry, which typically correspond with heightened student interest in related fields.

Eisenstat said the last peak in computer science majors was in 2004, when the 40-some majors had entered the department at the end of the dot-com boom. Soon after, when that economic bubble burst, the number of majors dropped to 15.

“All my friends are telling me this is where the future is,” said Steven Kang ’16, a prospective economics and history major currently enrolled in Computer Science 112, “Introduction to Programming.” “I wouldn’t say it’s peer pressure. It feels right [and] I might as well try it.”

Some students expressed concern about how the department is going to handle the surge. Although class enrollment is not a problem for Eric Ho ’16 this term, he said the final project had been cut from one of his computer science courses last semester when enrollment was higher than anticipated.

Last year, HackYale Co-Director Zack Reneau-Wedeen ’14 had to share his “Artificial Intelligence” teaching assistant with some 60 other students, he said. When asked, Eisenstat explained that the TF in question was working 20 hours a week — the equivalent of two teaching fellows’ loads. With the increased time commitment, Reneau-Wedeen said the TF needed to give fewer creative assignments in order to make grading more manageable.

Eisenstat explained that the number of graduate student TFs in computer science is limited by the fixed number of students enrolled in the graduate school. One more graduate student in computer science means one fewer in another department, he added.

Especially concerning for Feigenbaum was the computer science faculty’s ability to cope with heightened demand. She said Yale needs to respond to students’ demonstrated interest by increasing hiring efforts in the department.

“We’re getting more and better undergrads,” Feigenbaum said. “It simply has to follow logically — if you recruit more students, you will eventually need more faculty.”

But computer science major Jason Brooks ’16 said the faculty has handled the surge well given available resources. Just like last year, the department has opened an annex to the “Zoo,” one of the main computing hubs on campus, to accommodate the rise in student demand. If the enrollment surge lasts, Brooks said, the Computer Science Department might need to expand their physical resources.

Students have demonstrated interest in Yale’s computer science department in more ways than just course enrollment. Brooks cited Y-Hack, Yale’s first 24-hour hackathon that took place in November, as a sign of increased interest from both students and industries in Yale’s computer science department. Over 1,000 students from across the country and Canada stayed overnight on West Campus for the programming competition, which received funding from Amazon, Google and other prominent tech industry sponsors.

“We are trying to do our part to show the administration that [computer science] is happening, and that a lot of people want this,” said Charles Jin ’16, a co-founder of Y-Hack. “Yale’s great, but it’s also lagging a bit behind.”

The computer science department is located at 51 Prospect St.

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