Errol Kaylor ’18, a post-baccalaureate in the computer science department, is in the midsts of coordinating the 12 TA’s assigned to this term’s two Intro to Computer Science sections. In total, the sections number over 90 CS-141 students.
Spacco explained that CS enrollments at Knox had already been rising steadily prior to this academic year. CS-141 enrollment, which was in the 50s when Spacco began at Knox in 2010, has risen to the low hundreds since 2015.
“There’s a lot more stress in that size of classroomÉ probably one of the biggest changes is just the amount of overhead that is required by the professors,” Kaylor said. “We have to change how we’re handling exams, it’s a lot harder to know the names and stuff of about 95 students.”
According to Associate Professor and Computer Science Chair Jaime Spacco, the computer science department was only able to meet the current CS-141 demand because of computer science Professor Emeritus John Dooley coming out of retirement to teach a section.
“If he’s not available, then we’re looking at closing out 44 students for 141 or canceling a 300 level CS elective that has 32 students in it,” Spacco said.
The spike for this academic year greatly exceeded the norm, however. Spacco stated that 75 students enrolled in CS-141 during the Fall Term, followed by 99 students in the current Winter Term, for a total of 174 students over the course of the school year.
“There’s no such thing as too many students. We already had a lot of students, now we have more,” Spacco said. “But the reality is more students is not the same experience as fewer students.”
Possible cause for this year’s large spike include the formation of the new business and management major, which included CS-141 in its requirements, as well as the requirements for the new bachelor of science. Spacco theorizes that the current spike is only temporary and will eventually be less extreme.
“Normally those students are going to spread out 141 across four years. Now we have a bunch of juniors and seniors who need to take it right now, this year or next year,” Spacco said. “So maybe we’re going to see a two year sort of spike and maybe it will plateau again.”
Business and management majors do have the option between CS-141 and a new analytics course being offered by Professor of Mathematics Kevin Hastings, STAT-223. Spacco suggested that the course will also be able to lessen the demand for CS-141 once it begins being offered, with Hastings debuting the applied analytics course this spring.
“What I think my course is going to concentrate more on is techniques for using historical data to make predictions or classifications of future items we may observe,” Hastings said.
Hastings, who was involved in the creation of the new major, stated that he had been thinking of introducing the course for years but knew it would be needed now with the introduction of the business and management major.
He emphasized the course was not just directed towards business majors, but that it would serve many of their needs.
“Anybody who does any decision making in business, is going to make it on the basis of an informed appreciation of data now. That’s the way businesses are run now, from the Fortune 500 companies to sports teams,” Hastings said.
Hastings hopes to be able to teach the new course every year going forward, but imagined that with the demand from growing number of business majors, it potentially could end up being offered multiple terms a year. The initial class limit will be 25 students, with the possibility of favoring business majors and upperclassmen for enrollment.
Spacco emphasized, however, that the flow of students into CS was not created by the new requirements. His perspective was the requirements were simply following the direction of the students.
“Before CS was required for the bachelor of science students and the business students, we still had lots of students from the other sciences taking computer science” Spacco said. “They’re already taking these classes, now we’re trying to catch up and adjust.”
Professor and Chair of Business and Management John Spittell explained his belief in the important for all students of getting basic instruction in computer science.
“Moving forward, if you don’t understand the fundamentals of computer science. … you’re missing a piece, right? That’s like not knowing accounting,” Spittell said. “It’s a digital world now, we need to know about this.”
In introducing the Business and Management major, Spittell stated he sought to make sure the course was well integrated into Knox’s liberal arts education. Since its introduction this year, Spittell counted a total of 31 juniors and seniors as having added the major, noting that most had opted into it as a second major.
“It was very important to me as chair to make sure that it didn’t go like a rocket going up, that it is slow consistent growth so it that would be really part of the whole major set that’s at Knox,” Spittell said.
Spacco outlined his desire to be able to offer CS Intro courses geared at non-majors such as potentially business students, something which had been offered in the past but is no longer possible due to the demands of staffing CS-141.
“Right now CS-141 is introductory computer science for potential CS majors. That’s not what business students need or what bachelor of science students need,” Spacco said. “What those students need is a non-majors intro class … focusing on either financial problems, computational problems in chemistry, computational problems from other disciplines.”
Spittell was aware of the impact that had been felt in the CS department, comparing it to the past impact the philosophy department felt when the business minor began requiring the taking of an ethics course.
“It’s actually a really good thing because it’s broadening out the liberal art education … knowledge is flowing back and forth between the departments for utilization in both,” Spittell said.
While acknowledging the staffing pressure that has been created, including within the business and management department, Spittell characterized this as an entirely solvable problem. He foresees a growth in staffing as the business and management major continues to grow.
“So there’s a little bit of growing pain, but it’s actually really healthy growth … There is a way to actually manage the load and restructure a little bit, so it’s more of how do we balance the load to handle other students,” he said.
Spacco clarified that he did not believe that the size of the CS-141 sections was having an effect on the quality of the course, but acknowledged that it would be preferable to be able to work with smaller class sizes.
“It’s not that we can’t teach 90-something students in these really big sections, but it’s a lot of overhead, you need a lot of TAs to do it,” Spacco said.
Kaylor, who had been in a section of 30 students when he took CS-141, did point to the loss of personal interaction as a drawback. He stated he became a CS major in large part because of how comfortable he became with the CS faculty.
“There was a lot more personal interactions, certainly in lab, because you’re in the same lab with your same professor and your professor is going around and talking to everyone,” Kaylor said. “And a lot of it is going to just be like small talk but a little bit of small talk goes a long way I think.”
Spacco noted his department would be put under significant strain if at any point a professor went on a multiple-term sabbatical during a school year. He stated that due to the current amount of opportunities in the CS field, hiring a visiting professor in CS is unfeasible. The last time the CS department attempted to hire a visiting professor, only six applications were received.
“They were so bad, we decided we’d rather have nobody … we would rather just all teach bigger classes and do more stuff than have somebody who’s just not up to the standards of Knox,” Spacco said.
The CS department’s hope is to continue avoiding closing out significant numbers of students. Spacco highlighted a specific concern that close-outs would negatively impact the department’s demographics. Currently about a third of Knox CS majors are female, but he observed the issue of men being more likely to start college intending to pursue CS.
“We’re afraid if we have strict close-out policies only the students that know they want to do computer science, who tend to be overwhelmingly male … they’re going to be the most aggressive about trying to get those few spots,” Spacco said. “That’s very unlikely to help our gender breakdown and our inclusivity breakdown in general.”
Spacco was uncertain about whether the college will be able to expand the CS department in the near future, but expressed his fear of Knox falling behind competing schools as they make strides in attracting CS students through expanding their CS departments.
“If we expand in five or ten years, it will probably be too late … we’ll be playing catch up. We should expand now, so that we can be known as the school that does the innovative stuff,” he said.