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UVa Computer Science Still Going Strong

From UVA Top News Daily
October 18, 2002

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 dot.com 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, hasnít 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.ís School of Engineering and Applied Science.

At U.Va., 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.

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 havenít been able to get into the classes they need, Stankovic said.

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. Most of the applications for graduate school come from abroad, particularly China and India, he said. "Whether they plan to stay and work in the States after they finish or return home and start new companies, their goal is to better themselves."

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. "Itís a fun class to teach," he said.

But it might become less fun soon. The class, which combines lectures with closed labs, requires 30 to 40 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants to help the students with their assignments and grade papers. Cohoon said the budget for undergraduate graders will be cut in the spring to cope with the stateís current fiscal crisis.

Even with classes bursting at the seams, U.Va. is not turning out enough computer science majors, said C.J. Livesay, director of engineering career services. Theyíre taking jobs, not only as software engineers or hardware developers but also as database managers for manufacturers, services companies and management consultants, he said. Computer science 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 computer science classes, he said.

If the program is deemed successful when the trial period ends, Grisham said, the College, in consultation with the computer science department, will consider creating a new major in computer science for Arts & Sciences students.

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 schoolís student body.

While the number of first-year students accepted as majors in computer science fell slightly last spring, to 54 from 55 the year before, 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.

The quality of these students is very high, Stankovic said. Along with SATs and other measures of incoming students, U.Va. computer science students ???men and women ???have received honorable mentions in several of the past few years for award- winning undergraduate papers submitted in national contests run by the Computing Research Association.

The computer science department, which has 25 active teaching faculty members, harbors ambitious goals ???top 10 status nationwide. 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.

A National Science Foundation grant several years ago enabled the department to add a "closed lab" component to some of the lower-level computer science classes so that teaching assistants could help students with their assignments during the lab. Hands-on labs have been shown to help women and minorities in particular, Cohoon said. He said that the NSF funded workshops so that educators from other colleges could watch U.Va.ís model "closed labs" in action.

Many of U.Va.ís 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. And Bill Wulf, an engineering professor, is currently on leave for four years to serve as president of the National Academy of Engineering, which advises the White House on national technology policy.

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.

Original Article | Local Copy


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