Swarthmore CS Department Continues to Grow

Last spring, Swarthmore’s graduating class featured a whopping 44 Computer Science majors. Only a decade earlier, Computer Science majors of the 2005 graduating class consisted of only 11 students: a number that was four times smaller.

CS Majors

For several years now, Swarthmore Computer Science has seen exponential growth. Today, it rests as one of the college’s largest departments, competing alongside juggernauts such as Economics, Biology, and Political Science. To students involved in the field, the cause looming behind this massive spike in popularity is fairly easy to pinpoint.

Kendell Byrd ’17, a Computer Science major, offered praise to the relevance of her field. “As our society continues to advance, technology becomes even more vital,” said Byrd. “We are in a world now where so many people have smart phones and computers. Computer Science is used to build everything on those devices.”

Ryan Higgins ’18, although undecided on his major, also expressed profound interest in Computer Science. He is currently taking CS 21: Introduction to Computer Science—a course that has grown to be one of the most popular at Swarthmore.

“It’s amazing how impactful a few lines of code can be,” said Higgins. “The work of one programmer can change the lives of millions.”

Given this new reality, it should come as no surprise that students such as Byrd and Higgins are flocking to Swarthmore’s Computer Science Department. Programming is an immensely practical skill that almost all employers have come to value in today’s job market. A handful of recent graduates in Computer Science have landed prestigious jobs at Google, Amazon, and various social media outlets.

The college’s efforts to adjust to the massive influx of CS students have proved difficult. With limited faculty and resources, the department is doing its best to support the needs of all students, regardless of their intended majors and minors. Tia Newhall, the current Department Chair of Computer Science, addressed the obstacles brought about by the department’s growing popularity.

“The problem is that unfortunately we cannot currently accommodate all students who want to take a CS course at Swarthmore,” said Newhall, who first joined the department in 1999. “In the face of huge enrollments and our having to lottery significant numbers of students out of CS courses every semester, it often means that if a student doesn’t take CS21 in their first three semesters, they may not be able to take a CS course at Swarthmore.”

Newhall isn’t overstating when referring the department’s “huge enrollments.” There are currently 103 students signed up for CS 21’s three sections next spring. Also impressive is that, prior to the lottery process, CS 35 had 95 students enrolled for the upcoming semester. Giving the applicability of Computer Science, these numbers should come as no surprise.

The dilemma that emerges from this is a simple one: class size. Due to pure logistics, the department has had no choice but to dissolve seminar offerings.  With hundreds of students taking CS courses every semester, there are obvious constraints on what types of classes can be provided. It’s simply not feasible for the department to offer students the small, more colloquial-based classroom experiences that Swarthmore College prides itself on. As a result, most current computer science courses contain anywhere from 20 to 70 students.

Another concern of the department pertains to the disparity between male and female Computer Science majors. In 2015, only 32% percent of the 44 graduating majors were female. This trend can be traced back every year, even long before the department endured the sudden inundation of prospective majors. That being said, the gender disparity of Computer Science majors at Swarthmore is actually far less extreme when compared to other U.S. institutions. Data obtained by the Computing Research Association (CRA) revealed that only 14% of degrees in Computer Science were awarded to women in 2014. Given this, Swarthmore is considerably ahead of the curve.

CS Gender

Still, Swarthmore is addressing this disparity head-on. The Ninja Program, which offers academic support to students in lower-level Computer Science Courses, features a diverse group of both male and female students. Additionally, the student-run organization entitled Swarthmore Women in Computer Science (SWICS) more directly confronts the indisputable fact that women are underrepresented in the field.

Enrollment has grown much faster than the amount of available faculty and resources, so obstacles will inevitably emerge. Despite these various dilemmas, however, the Computer Science Department has quickly established itself as one of the largest and most successful fields at Swarthmore, which is an impressive feat. Now that it can begin to anticipate the massive student interest of recent years, the department should have an easier time situating itself.

Data courtesy of the Computing Research Association and Swarthmore College’s Office of Institutional Research.


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