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Computer science department adapts to rapid growth


By Andrew Grottkau     3/5/19 11:16pm

The number of undergraduates studying computer science has more than doubled since 2014, an increase that department head Luay Nakhleh said will require an investment in the department.

“The university can invest in CS,” Nakhleh said. “That’s something the university can do and should do, and they are doing to a certain extent now. We are making the case to them that we need to grow more. Growing and hiring more faculty, that’s something that’s not against the culture or any philosophy of Rice.”

Students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in computer science increased from 155 in Fall 2014 to 329 in Fall 2018, according to the Rice Office of Institutional Research. These totals only reflect those students who have already declared a major in computer science. 

In spring 2014, when the department first began teaching only one section of COMP 182, a freshman-level computer science major requirement, there were 119 students in the course. The class, which is only offered in the spring semester, reached a peak of 225 students in spring 2018 before lowering to 208 students this semester, spring 2019. Nakhleh said the classes have become almost unmanageable.

“This is a big issue because students come to Rice for a different style,” Nakhleh said. “If they wanted to go to a huge [class] maybe they would have gone to [the University of Texas], Austin. But what can we do? These are the resources we have. I cannot copy myself or create 15 versions of myself or anything like that.”

According to Rice’s Student Achievement website, about 80 percent of Rice computer science students who graduated between 2013 and 2017 are currently employed while only three percent are searching for jobs. The rest are split between graduate school, entrepreneurship, the military and other  or nontraditional career paths. 

According to the database, the top employers of Rice graduates since 2013 are Microsoft and Google.

Shaquille Que, a McMurtry freshman, said he believes the lucrative career opportunities coupled with the fact that computer science is a broad and rapidly developing field help to drive students to the major. 

“First is income-wise, CS is known to have really good income,” Que said. “It’s a dream for people to go to Silicon Valley and work for Facebook or Google and get paid really, really well for that. Second is that today, a lot of our world is powered by new technologies. CS is at the forefront of that, it’s changing the way we do things.”

In response to the influx of students, six new faculty members have joined the computer science department in the past two years, and Nakhleh said he expects to hire more for the upcoming academic year. 

Even though the faculty is growing, the number of students has been difficult for the department to deal with, according to Nakhleh. With the size of the classes comes a wide gap in knowledge between the most prepared and least prepared COMP students, according to Nakhleh, which he said makes teaching challenging. 

“Many of [the students] are taking [computer science] because of the jobs at the end and now that’s creating a situation where students did not come prepared for CS to Rice,” he said. “This becomes so hard because who do you teach the course for? Of course not the top [student], but I cannot just slow down the course to a very painful pace because one student might otherwise get lost.”

Students, too, have noticed the effects of the increasing class sizes. Mary Haws, a Duncan College freshman, said she struggled to get one-on-one contact with teaching assistants in COMP 140, an introductory-level computer science course. 

“You’d go to office hours and there would be 20 people and one [teaching assistant],” Haws said. “There was one time in McMurtry [College] Commons there were back-to-back office hours, my friend and I went to both of them and didn’t get any help the whole time.”

Nakhleh said the department is attempting to deal with the ballooning class sizes in a variety of ways. COMP 140 and COMP 182 now employ 50 and 34 TAs, respectively, and large classes are assigned co-instructors. However, according to Nakhleh, the volume of TAs can create new challenges for the faculty. 

“Even managing the TAs now is a full-time job,” he said. 

Kutub Gandhi, a Sid Richardson College junior, said he believes the changes the department has made to accomodate the number of students have been effective. 

“I think that if you had told me coming into Rice that hey, you’re going to have class sizes of 200 filling Herzstein Hall, I would’ve been intimidated by that because I would’ve felt like I wouldn’t get a lot of individual attention,” Gandhi said. “But COMP 140 and COMP 182, the two big intro classes, are managed pretty well. I actually think [the department’s] been doing it surprisingly well.”

Still, Nakhleh said he believes improvements can be made to limit class sizes. He said that although the university would not allow it, he would suggest that Rice force students to stay within the academic school they indicate on their application in order to prevent students from social sciences, natural sciences or the humanities from switching into computer science. 

“[Forcing students to stay within one academic school is] against the culture of Rice,” Nakhleh said. “Anyone who shows up with a form to sign [to major in computer science], I will sign it. All they need to do is do well in the courses ... Respecting what the student wrote on their application is an option, but I don’t see that happening at Rice.”

The alternative, according to Nakhleh, is for Rice to make a concerted effort to support the computer science department. 

Despite the large classes, Nakhleh said the computer science department routinely scores among the highest in the category ‘satisfaction with teaching’ on the senior exit survey. Harrison Brown, a Lovett College senior and computer science major, said he thinks Rice’s computer science department has been effective in preparing him for his future. 

“I think the curriculum here is really good and we get to have close interactions with faculty,” Brown said. “I know there’s a lot of strain on the department with all the students, but overall I think the department is doing a good job.”

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