FOGEL: Rise of the computer

The University needs to expand its computer science program and better encourage its students, particularly women, to earn computer science degrees

Computer science undergraduate enrollment in America is on the rise for the fifth straight year. This statistic, however, masks the true nature of the computer science crisis in America. The truth is that in the next 10 years there will be around one million more jobs than student graduates in the computer science industry. Moreover, women have become less and less involved in the field, diminishing the human resources available.

There appears to be ample incentive to seek a computer science degree — a recent 2014 study found that nine out of the 10 most lucrative degrees in America are in computer science at elite colleges — yet, women still drastically lag behind in earning such degrees. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 18 percent of CS undergraduate degree recipients in 2010 were female, a drop from 37 percent in 1985. The percentage of female computer science graduate students here at the University also sits at 18 percent.

To combat this lack of female representation, Associate Professor Joanne Cohoon has focused on high school teacher workshops to help attract women to computing. Cohoon says that her husband, Associate Professor Jim Cohoon, has also developed an introductory course specifically targeted to students with no programming experience.

“As a result of the prerequisite of no experience, the demographics of the course are gender balanced and [include] high representations of minority students relative to the Engineering School,” Cohoon said.

The success of this introductory course, which attracted over 130 students this semester, proves that it is possible to attract women to computing. But the University’s efforts should not stop there. Offering different kinds of computing courses with no experience required would not only attract more participation from outside of the engineering school but also likely from women.

Cohoon also says that the “no-experience required” introductory course
“employs pedagogical approaches designed to be broadly appealing and effective.” If these approaches have helped bring more women and diversity to computing in introductory classes, then they should be spread to others courses as well.

Certainly, before the University can add more courses and expand its efforts to attract more women, it must expand the computer science program itself.

The computer science department at the University includes only 300 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students, yet Associate Professor Mark Sherriff says that if you add up the enrollment of all CS courses, the computer science department has gone from having a total enrollment of 3,862 in the 2011-2012 school year to 5,735 this year.

Though Sherriff says there are plans to grow both the computer science faculty and engineering school faculty over the next few years, it is crucial that the University take immediate action to accommodate the growing numbers. This means providing more computer science classes for the growing number of students interested in CS and catering to students who Sherriff explains are “frustrated by the restrictions we have to place on our classes, both caps and enrollment restrictions.”

Specifically in Sherriff’s CS Intro to Programming course, enrollment has gone from 140 students in his section in 2010 to 400 enrolled in the fall of next semester. “As every engineering student is required to take a CS1 course, the make-up of the course is representative of the make-up of the engineering school, plus quite a few students from the College. The only real change we’ve seen is an increase in enrollment from the College, which does tend to be a bit more diverse than the standard engineering population,” said Sherriff.

This increase in University college students is likely owed to the inclusion of the BA Major in computer science in the college since Spring 2006. Nevertheless, there has been a clear spike in interest for taking computer science programming courses. This is a spike that the University cannot ignore. It must seek to capture this interest, perhaps by holding computer science events or information sessions to reach out to those non-engineering students who may wish to pursue computer science. By expanding the computer science department and reaching out to students, the program will become more diverse and keep up with the flourishing computer science industry.

Jared Fogel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

Published April 7, 2014 in Opinion

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