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CS town hall confronts growth issues

By Amber Tong     11/10/15 3:36pm

A town hall organized by computer science majors drew over 50 students and faculty members to address the opportunities and challenges associated with an increasingly large CS department. 

Students voiced concerns about discrepancies between expectations and the reality of the department, but also optimism about an undergraduate advisory board the Computer Science Club plans to form. 

The undergraduate population of the CS department has soared in the past six years, growing from 107 declared majors in fall 2009 to 282 in fall 2014, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Department chair and professor of computer science Vivek Sarkar said the entire school of engineering is growing but the speed and scale of the CS department’s expansion exceeds that of the other departments.

“The change has been much more dramatic for CS,” Sarkar said. “The current seniors who matriculated in 2012 have seen our major more than double in just the last three years.”

Students who attended the town hall formed small groups to discuss questions provided by moderator and Associate Dean of Engineering Education Ann Saterbak. The meeting culminated in a discussion about the issues that the advisory board should address, which range from collecting data from peer institutions to working with professors on course feedback mechanisms.

Saterbak said that some of the problems raised are not unique to the department.

“Class size is seen as an issue in several departments,” Saterbak said. “There are two other departments where enrollment in upper-level core courses is fairly high: [chemical and mechanical engineering].”

CS Club External Vice President Raymond Cano, who organized the town hall, said the presence of faculty members broadened the scope of the conversation.

“The professors all brought their own unique insights, definitely making the students think about what the core issues are,” Cano said. “They also helped to clarify many misconceptions that the student body had about the department.”

Wiess College freshman and CS major Tim Skaras said he attended the town hall out of concerns for the future of the department rooted in his negative experience during registration. Skaras, who had hoped to enroll in Computational Thinking (COMP 140) in fall 2015, said he was forced into Introduction to Game Programming in Python (COMP 160) due to space constraints. Skaras said this scenario was alarming because it contradicted the advertised image of Rice.

“I came to Rice expecting the often quoted 6:1 student to faculty ratio,” Skaras said. “It is troubling to know the CS department struggles to fulfill that image, in the introductory classes and the upper level courses.”

Lovett College junior Karin Diamond said she participated in the discussion because the issues being addressed have a personal impact.

“I am feeling the effects of this growth particularly acutely at this point in the semester as I try to figure out my schedule for next semester, because I do not have a major advisor,” Diamond said.

Brown College senior and CS major Jake Kornblau said the meeting was not organized as a forum where students could discuss their grievances and potential solutions. Instead, participants created a list of both the pros and cons of growth and only shared one or two.

“While I applaud Dr. Saterbak for attempting to create a discussion that was balanced... I found the organization of the meeting to almost stifle discussion,” Kornblau said.

Kornblau said the way the town hall was organized also limited opportunities for professors to contribute, although their input was significant when they did participate. For instance, in response to students’ concerns about not getting into COMP 140, the class’s professor, Scott Rixner, pointed out that the lenient add-drop system is part of the problem.

According to Kornblau, Rixner said so many students have dropped COMP 140 that there is now more than enough space for those who originally could not register for the class.

In fall 2014, the Committee of Undergraduate Curriculum proposed a limit on the number of drops per semester, but the proposal was dropped due to opposition by the student body and the Student Association.

Wiess College sophomore Ethan Perez said the meeting helped him comprehend the complexity of the issues faced by the CS department. 

“I got a better understanding of the problems CS at Rice faces... and some of the reasoning behind decisions the department and various professors have made,” Perez said.

Sarkar said he encourages students to express the problems that they are facing, but to be more careful about proposing solutions.

“In my opinion, students have more credibility when they focus on stating what issues they are facing, rather how those issues should be addressed.” Sarkar said. “Because [issues are something] nobody can argue with. Those are the facts. If we agree that the ‘what’ is a problem, then we have a basis to collectively figure out ‘how’ the problem should be addressed.”

According to Sarkar, the solutions can take one of two approaches: either restrict the number of CS majors, or hire more faculty members. He said the current faculty is split between the two options, but he is hopeful about investment in faculty since it is a national trend among universities. 

“My position is that we need to find the teaching resources to meet the increased demand of Rice students, both majors and non-majors, who want to take CS classes, rather than cap our enrollments,” Sarkar said. “That’s what all the other leading computer science departments are doing. So why should we be left behind?”

Kornblau said after talking to fellow students, he feels their real complaint is that they are not given the experience promised to them.

“The administration tried to present a lot of facts and spin to make it seem like the growth in CS wasn’t bad by comparison,” Kornblau said. “[Meanwhile] the CS professors were staying way later than normal hours to try and figure out what students felt they were missing out on and how to best proceed going forward.”

The administration will have to step in with the resources necessary for solutions, Sarkar said. 

“As a department, we are limited as to what we can do to address many of the issues brought up during the CS town hall,” Sarkar said. “I look forward to a dialog at other levels of the university to discuss what can be done.”

Dean of the School of Engineering Ned Thomas said the student-faculty ratio in engineering has grown too high, and new resources as well as reallocation of existing resources are needed to balance students’ freedom to pursue their aspirations with Rice’s traditional strengths. 

“The Data Science Initiative that was endorsed by the Board of Trustees last May will help CS through some hiring of tenure track faculty and non tenure track instructors,” Thomas said. “But still more needs to be done in order to provide a superior educational experience here at Rice.” 

Sarkar said the advisory board adds a structural component to running the department, which he sees as a shared responsibility. 

Diamond said she is optimistic about the advisory board despite concerns that it will lack in momentum of power to affect real change.

“I appreciate the efforts of the CS club to find a constructive way to address the students concerns instead of just complaining about the department,” Diamond said.

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