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December 10, 1998

By Katie Rothery

The Golden Age of computers is upon us, and despite the "Y2K" shrieks of religious fundamentalists and the media, most students recognize that even basic computing skills are necessary, marketable traits. More and more professions and fields require a firm background in computer science, and as a result an increasing number of students are drawn to the courses. In recent years at the university, computer science has come to enjoy a popularity akin to Elzinga's ECON 201, and department administrators are having trouble meeting the demand.

The computer science department considers itself a service-oriented department, meaning that many of the classes it offers are geared as much (and in some cases more) to students outside of the School of Engineering as to those inside. The department offers a minor program and several computer literacy courses for students in other schools in addition to accommodating those College majors which require CS courses for degree programs. Traffic between the schools has always been encouraged - in fact SEAS students must take twenty percent of their credits in the College - but due to high demand, spaces in CS courses have become harder and harder to obtain.

Many students in the College have complained that it is nearly impossible to get into CS 101, a course that is required for at least three majors in the College as well as for a major or minor in computer science. Indeed, there is a lengthy process of registration blocks and wait lists. Still, department head Jack Stankovic says that the registration process isn't designed to discourage students from attempting to register but to ensure that all students who must take the course can. The department tries to balance the number of students who take CS 101 by semester, offering several sections in the fall of each year for non-engineering students and sections in the spring for first-year engineers. CS 201, which is also required for the minor and major, works similarly but with the semester requirements reversed.

Even with this balancing act in place, it's difficult for the department to accommodate all interested students. Computer-regulated waiting lists give priority to those students who are minors or are required by their major to take the course, but the waiting lists are only activated when all sections - some early in the morning or late at night - are full. This leaves students with the choice of taking labs at an unappealing time or trying their luck again the next semester.

College students are not the only ones putting pressure on the current system, nor are they the only ones suffering. This year the School of Engineering decided to place an enrollment cap on the number of students who can major in information technologies programs - systems engineering, computer science and electrical engineering. When preliminary registration indicated that nearly two-thirds of the entering SEAS class wants to enter those three fields of study, administrators quickly realized that it would be impossible to accommodate the minors from other schools. Consequently, an application process for majors is in the works and many students will be turned away from their desired course of study. "This is the first time that I know of a department having to curtail its majors to satisfy minors and other students," said SEAS Associate Dean David Morris, "but we are cognizant of the fact that all students are part of the larger university community."

The problem, according to computer science faculty, is one of limited resources. Right now, the department simply doesn't have the faculty, the teaching assistants, or the lab space to keep up with student demand. In the past two years, demand for computer science has gone up nearly 51%, and the CS department has had to accommodate two and a half more times as many students as expected a few years ago. All the while, the department is operating with exactly the same number of faculty and amount of lab space as they had eight years ago.

Unlike lecture-style classes such as Elzinga's, computer science classes have a lab-intensive curriculum. With only a small number of labs and a limited amount of teaching assistants to staff those labs, the department cannot simply add more students to a popular class., and there are already complaints from many CS majors that the existing classes are too large. The department has filed many several proposals for increased funds, but even with more money, it will be difficult to attract qualified faculty and graduate students to the university. And if more faculty do come, there is no guarantee that there will be enough lab space for additional classes.

Administrators expect the demand for information technologies courses to level off sometime in the next year and hope that the measures taken in the short-run will carry over for the long-run. However, some CS faculty do not believe the trend is temporary. Knowing of 30,000 unfilled positions in computer science in Northern Virginia alone, Stankovic fields calls from corporations interested in university CS graduates on a daily basis, and he is certain that students are aware of the job potential. Why not ask the corporations for monetary gifts to enhance the department? Stankovic has, but many of the corporations already donate to the university's Capital Campaign Fund and don't see the need for a duplicate donation. Other companies are simply weary of investing in a small, otherwise state-funded program.

In a perfect world - one in which money grows on trees, professors and teaching assistants sprout in abundance, and simple solutions fall directly into everyone's lap - university administrators would simply pluck some cash from the nearest branch and add to the existing resources so that the computer science department could accommodate all interested students. Unfortunately (though some might argue differently), the world of Jefferson's academic village is less than perfect. Allocating limited resources is no simple task (just ask Elzinga), and the computer science department is tired of turning away qualified, interested students. Stankovic says it's time for a new "Information Age" academic village at the university, but it will take money, effort, and commitment to move the university to the forefront.

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