Nov. 8-21, 2002
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Computer classes buck trend
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Computer classes buck trend
Student demand is overwhelming resources

Computer science professor Kevin Sullivan in the lab with his students
Courtesy of School of Engineering and Applied Science
Computer science professor Kevin Sullivan in the lab with his students

By Charlotte Crystal

As Mark Twain said in a different context, reports of the death of computer science classes have been greatly exaggerated.

A recent article in the Washington Post noted that, in connection with the bust, enrollment in computer science classes at mid-Atlantic universities fell last year by 1 percent.

The article cited a report by the Computing Research Association and quoted sources in higher education – particularly at Virginia Tech and George Washington University – who saw a drop in interest among entering first-year students in declaring majors in computer science. The piece suggested the drop-off signaled a growing trend away from computer science.

Such a trend, if there is one, hasn’t been seen at U.Va.

“In engineering, we say that 1 percent is the noise, or a random fluctuation that does not necessarily reflect a trend,” said Paxton Marshall, assistant dean of undergraduate programs at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Here, student demand for computer science classes still overwhelms the resources of the department, said Jack Stankovic, computer science department chair. With all the first-year engineering students enrolling in Computer Science 101, plus a number of undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences who want to minor in computer science, the classes are packed and enrollment has to be capped, he said.

“Software development is projected to be the largest creator of jobs in the U.S. economy in the coming years.”

Kevin Sullivan
associate professor of
computer science

And unfortunately, engineering students working on their majors take preference over A&S students working on their minors, so in some cases, College students have not been able to complete minors in computer science because they haven’t been able to get into the classes they need, Stankovic said.

The number of first-year students accepted as majors in computer science fell by one last spring, to 54 from 55 the year before, but the number of first-year students accepted into computer engineering rose to 46 from 42, and those in systems engineering rose to 100 from 92 the year before.

Demand at the graduate level also remains strong, said Alf Weaver, professor of computer science. Last year, the department received 701 applications for 35 places, the most ever.

At the undergraduate level, about 550 students fill the chemistry auditorium in two or three sections for the spring offering of Computer Science 101, said Jim Cohoon, associate professor of computer science who has taught the class for 10 of the past 12 years. “It’s a fun class to teach,” he said.

Even with classes bursting at the seams, U.Va. is not turning out enough CS majors, said C.J. Livesay, director of engineering career services. They’re taking jobs, not only as software engineers or hardware developers, but also as database managers for manufacturers, services companies and management consultants, he said. CS majors who graduated last spring reported median salaries of $53,000, compared with the national average of $49,500 as reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“While the demand for computer programmers may have slipped in recent months, the industry demand for capable software designers still vastly outstrips the supply,” said Kevin Sullivan, associate professor of computer science. “Software development is projected to be the largest creator of jobs in the U.S. economy in the coming years. The job growth is still there.”

In an effort to explore new ways of meeting the demand for computer science classes from Arts & Sciences students, the College will launch a three-year pilot program next spring, said Charles Grisham, chief technology officer for the College and professor of chemistry. The Honors Program in Computer Science will accept five to 10 qualified students each year. The students, who may take up to 10 classes in computer science, will be on an equal footing with other engineering students in terms of gaining admittance into the CS classes, he said.

Meanwhile, engineering students majoring in computer science (which focuses on software development), computer engineering (which focuses on hardware development), and systems engineering (which focuses on developing business and engineering applications for computer software) together make up about 40 percent of the engineering school’s student body, up from about 30 percent in 1991.

The computer science department, which has 25 active teaching faculty members, harbors ambitious goals – top 10 status nationwide, up from its most recent U.S. News & World Report ranking of 27. Curriculum reforms adopted over the past two decades have strengthened the program and kept pace with changes in industry, said Worthy Martin, associate chair of the computer science department.

Many of U.Va.’s computer science faculty has high national visibility, with three assistant professors winning coveted NSF Career Awards in recent years. Respect for the quality of the work done here helps bring an average of $5 million to $7 million a year in research funding into the computer science department alone, according to Stankovic.

The computer science department is in pursuit of excellence, both in teaching and research, Stankovic said. Paradoxically, the better it becomes, the greater its pressures will be.


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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