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How inclusion drives innovation

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If Swarthmore’s computer science core curriculum has taught me anything — other than some Python, C, and C++ —it is that collaborating with people who think differently from you is one of the most powerful tools in tech. One of my favorite parts about the CS department here is that all of the upper-level classes emphasize collaboration. Unpacking how someone else’s brain interprets information, ideas, and code is the absolute best way to concretize a concept into your brain. Additionally, two people who think differently working on the same project will allow you to partake in the creation of something you never would have been able to build on your own. This conception of neurodiversity arises frequently when discussing Autism Spectrum Disorder, its destigmatization, and expanding societal inclusion. Computer science as a discipline is a window through which these conceptions can become a reality.  It is no secret that autistic individuals face ubiquitous discrimination based on their differences, but what some people do not know is that the intellectual capacities of certain subsets of these individuals — those living with High Functioning ASD — are routinely and grossly underestimated.

As a computer science major, I can attest that coding is a task that requires resilience, meticulosity, and an inclination for both innovation and creativity. Further, coding is an explicitly detailed activity. There are neither innuendos nor overtones upon which someone must pick up. Every bit of syntax does exactly what it is supposed to — assuming your meticulous implementation details are correctly executed — and every line incorporates mathematical and logical reasoning in order to achieve the execution of the programmer’s intention.

Many of the qualities outlined above that are valued in a great coder can be amplified in certain individuals with high-functioning ASD. The disorder does not necessarily impede cognitive function from a purely intellectual standpoint, but due to their unconventional perceptions of social situations, autistic individuals with autism often find themselves disregarded in both school systems and professional settings. I would like to argue that these individuals can not only find inclusion in the rapidly expanding tech world but actually may possess the brains best suited to partake at the forefront of innovation.

I have seen the benefits of letting a kid with autism experiment with programming up close in my placement at Strath Haven High School. Andy, whose name here has been changed for privacy purposes, is a nonverbal autistic ninth grader whose ASD is comorbid with a collection of other disorders including one that severely impedes his motor skills and inhibits him from writing. Andy has taught himself to work with computers in the absence of being able to speak. He sees computers as a means by which he can express himself and communicate, and he often chooses to play with various coding applications. Even with his limitations, it is clear that Andy is quite good at manipulating machines, at times navigating technological devices more expertly than does his teaching aid.

Unfortunately, in the United States, kids like Andy rarely receive the chance to realize their tech potential in an intellectual capacity. 75-85 percent of people with ASD are unemployed, and even those who are higher functioning are often forced into jobs far below their intellectual capabilities. There are approximately 500,000 software engineering jobs that become available in the United States each year, yet less than 1 percent of those jobs are filled with people on the autism spectrum.

Despite running into obstacles in most collaborative work environments, people with ASD are thriving in Silicon Valley, the hub of the American technology world. In that world, some of the characteristics that classify people as autistic or “disabled” function as strengths. It is due to this fact that Silicon Valley possesses a disproportionately high concentration of people with ASD.  Silicon Valley is one of the most productive, innovative places in the country, and the fact that it is opening its doors to autistic people indicates the rest of the world could benefit from doing the same. We are disregarding the potential of so many in our population simply because of unwillingness to engage with difference, and ultimately, that only harms all parties involved.

Why should we care? Besides the fact that more tech-savvy brains collaborating to create and innovate can change the world, members of the Swarthmore computer science community specifically can only benefit from interacting and collaborating with minds different from our own in order to produce new and exciting ways of implementing code. Interactions with such minds may frequently occur in the workplace when we leave Swarthmore — should we be lucky to end up in a place like Silicon Valley.

There exist groups such as Coding Autism that are dedicated to teaching people on the spectrum to code. However, although these are exemplary organizations, ideally, people with ASD should receive the opportunity to learn to code before reaching adulthood. Many autistic children are not given the chance to maximize their potential during grade school and are placed in “regressive” classrooms with other students who qualify for special education. Coding at most high schools is an upper-level elective available only to those who are taking classes at the top of their school’s STEM tracks. Kids with autism, because of their difficulty in classroom settings, could be placed into a special education classroom with kids of far lower IQs and therefore never given the chance to take subjects such as computer science, even if they might excel at it.  

It is important to acknowledge that in order to teach coding, computers are required, and good technology is not an expense all school districts can easily afford. Still, there are ways to incorporate the same skills coding uses into the curriculum via mathematical proofs and logic puzzles that require nothing more than a pencil and paper.  When computers are available, coding should be a focus for all autistic children who possess the capacity to do it; integrating this practice into their education whenever possible will allow autistic children to see and internalize a potential framework for increased inclusion.

In addition to fighting for inclusion, it is critical that we identify autistic people by their strengths instead of solely categorizing them under the umbrella of disability.  “Always Unique, Totally Intelligent, Sometimes Mysterious” and “Nothing about us without us” are two slogans popularized by neurodiversity activists.

According to University of Montréal psychiatrist Laurent Mottron, “Many autistics… are suited for academic science… I believe that they contribute to science because of their autism, not in spite of it.” Similarly, perhaps the best people to develop technologies to benefit nonverbal or low-functioning autistic individuals are high-functioning ASD programmers in Silicon Valley. This fact could then decrease the chances of them being isolated or ostracized.

Finding fields such as computer science that play to the strengths of people with ASD rather than their weaknesses and ensuring these individuals get the opportunity to reach their potential is beyond critical. There is no app that cures autism, but granting people with ASD the skills to create technologies via the practice of coding not only integrates them into a lucrative, productive component of the economy but grants them access to a field that highlights, celebrates, and welcomes their strengths and views their minds as creative, productive, innovative, and desirable.

CS tenure talks reflect department’s unprecedented growth

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In the last two weeks, the computer science department, known for its increasing size and consequent lotteries, conducted tenure talks in order to hire a new tenure track professor. The first talk was marked by a joke about the CS lottery amongst the students in attendance. While tenure talks are not unique to CS, they do come at a critical time in the department’s development due to its unprecedented growth.

According to Professor Jeff Knerr, CS only had two professors when it began in 1985. It now has 12 — eight tenure track professors and four visiting professors.

Knerr has taught CS 21, the intro class, many times, and he reminisced about a time when there were only 10 CS majors and he taught a CS 21 class with only 16 students.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I got to know everybody.”

Now, it’s rather difficult to imagine a class that small when there are about 60 CS majors and 10 additional minors each year.

“It’s a crazy time right now,” Knerr said, referring to the number of students who are now taking CS.

However, the department is experiencing growing pains when it comes to the expansion. Knerr said that there are currently not enough professors to meet student demands. This shortage of professors has led to CS 21 classes that have almost 40 students and a lottery that helps cap these high-demand classes.

“The CS department is always looking for more professors to expand the department because it is definitely growing exponentially,” said Kyra Moed ’20, a student member of the search committee for the tenure talks.

Moed feels that the shortage of professors hasn’t caused any noticeable problems in the quality of education for students, whether it’s the class size or accessibility to professors.

“I think the department does a really great job at ensuring that no matter if it’s your first CS course or your senior year [they provide] a lot of support … All of the professors I’ve encountered are really passionate about teaching,” she said.

Michael Davinbry ’19, another student on the search committee, would not comment on the effects of the class sizes, but he said that the one of the department’s long-term goals is to hire more professors.

“I do think the CS department is trying to grow, so they’re hiring more professors. So I think that would benefit students and the faculty in general,” he said.

The tenure talks are necessary to hire a new professor who might help the CS department meet the demands of students.

There were four talks in total, with two occurring each week. The talks had three components: the research presentation, an informal lunch interview with CS students, and a mock class. The search committee in charge is comprised of tenure track professors and three student members, who were chosen by the faculty.

“My job is to gather feedback on candidates from other students and … summarize those feedbacks and present it to the faculty,” Davinbry said regarding his role in the interviewing process.

One of the themes of these tenure talks is student involvement. This is reflected in the nature of the three parts, the student component of the search committee, and the invitation for student observation and feedback on the candidates.

“I would imagine that the CS department values student input, and Swarthmore is an institution that values teaching as well as research, so having input from students in a way to get student opinions on a candidate [seems] … valuable,” said Davinbry.

The first part of the tenure talks was the research presentation. This involved the candidate explaining research that they were conducting and featured interaction between the candidate and faculty and CS students in attendance.

During the first research presentation, the classroom was nearly full with students and faculty in attendance. It lasted for approximately an hour.

After the research presentation was the informal lunch, which was coordinated by the students on the search committee and was independent of the faculty. Students were able to get to know the candidate in a setting outside of the classroom.

The final part, the mock class, started in the evening and lasted approximately 30 minutes. Students in attendance were asked to be “silent observers” while the faculty on the search committee took on the role of students in the “class.”

The first mock class was about binary trees. The instruction was short due to the limited time frame and was intended to be a lesson from a lower-level CS class.

The expansion of CS and shortage of professors that have resulted in the tenure talks are not unique to Swat, according to both Knerr and Moed.

“It’s really impressive how quickly it’s grown and how popular it’s become. And I think that’s true at every college and every university that there’s just this struggle to find people who aren’t just drawn by the money to [computer science],” said Moed.

There are many open computer science positions available in the job market today, which is leading to the growing number of students interested in the department. Knerr noted that it’s critical for everyone looking for a job to have a basic understanding of computer science, which is why there is not just an increase in CS majors but CS 21 students as well.

“[There are] lots of jobs, lots of opportunity. And some of them are lucrative,” Knerr added.

Because of this trend in available jobs, many colleges and universities nationwide seem to be experiencing difficulties finding professors who are willing to teach when they could have a more lucrative job elsewhere.

“I have heard in general that there’s a shortage nationally of CS professors,” Moed said.

The CS department has used the lotteries and now the tenure talks as ways to deal with its over-enrollment of students and subsequent shortage of professors. While the lotteries have been implemented to control class sizes, the addition of a new professor is needed to support the increase of students. But despite the problems that the department is facing, the heightened demand for CS majors in the job market will maintain its popularity in the years to come.

Why study English?

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When I tell people outside of Swat’s intellectual community that I want to be a Computer Science and English Literature double major, the response is usually something along the lines of, “Why study English?” The first time this happened, I was slightly taken aback. Why did I have to justify a passion for literature when one for coding is lauded as smart, practical, and even exemplary?

When people hear “Computer Science major” attached to my name, they are sometimes shocked, as I don’t exactly fit the stereotypical, general perception of a CS major: some guy who spends all his time in a basement gaming and playing Dota. Still, they are usually impressed, often commenting that I will have an easy time getting a job or that they think I will be really successful.

With English, this is not the case. When people hear the words “English major,” their minds jump to a picture of an idealistic idiot who, twenty years later, will be living under a rock writing poetry, attempting in vain to find a publisher interested in their 1,000 plus-page novel on 18th-century Russian idealism; or a picture of a professor in a lecture hall at a school in the middle of a cornfield wearing a tweed jacket and preaching about the importance of Medieval Literature to a group of half-asleep freshmen who could not care less.

Although these stereotypes do not cover the breadth of options English majors have after college, it is true that such majors have an average starting salary far lower than that of most other disciplines. This is a fact that turns many away from the department, even if they are one of the dwindling few who may have a passion for literature. As someone who is also studying Computer Science, arguing that starting salaries don’t matter would be hypocritical. So why study English when sticking solely to Computer Science would be the more practical choice?

English as a discipline is far more valuable than most believe. People who have never taken a college English class often assume that the department concerns itself solely with the contents of novels when, in fact, English classes — at least the ones I have taken so far at Swat — employ novels as portals through which we engage in sociological and political analyses of the time periods in which they were written and read. For example, in Professor Patnaik’s first-year seminar Literature and Law, we discussed the various ways in which Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” helped spur the 19th-century English Property Law reform movement that eventually granted women the right to own land.

The ways in which fictional works influence the way we live our lives are infinite. So many societal trends and behaviors evolve from characters and themes formulated inside authors’ imaginations. The cultural influence locked inside novels affects the way we behave and interact with each other, especially across social and political differences.

In her critically influential text “From Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel,” Nancy Armstrong states, “Fiction alone enables very different individuals to sit down to dinner in entirely unfamiliar places without finding them particularly strange, to shuffle into classrooms with people they have never met and with whom they might have little else in common … In this respect, the most powerful household is the one we carry around in our heads.”

Widely circulated works of fiction, and the themes that emerged from such stories, have molded behaviors throughout history and continue to touch the present, tying together people across large swaths of distance and time. Throughout her piece, Armstrong emphasizes not only the supreme power of reading fiction but the necessity for writers to keep creating it.

“In suppressing the fact and agency of writing, we also suppress the historical process by which these spheres of self, society, and culture were created and held in equilibrium … and thus the political power exerted by fiction — beyond our power to question.”

We have the privilege of attending one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, and our English department is fantastic. The professors are renowned in their respective fields, brilliant in lecture, and constantly pushing their students to achieve a greater level of understanding of the text and of the world.

Further, there aren’t a lot of places where you can take both English Literature and Computer Science every semester, and the fact that Swarthmore permits its students to open their minds to new disciplines, and diversify the range of subjects explored is an opportunity of which I think more of us should take advantage.

So when you’re signing up for classes come December and you scroll past the English Literature section, give it a second glance before moving on. Even if you’re a STEM major who took Modern Algebra to fill a writing credit, you may actually enjoy learning through novels. The classes are pretty incredible; I recommend giving one a chance.

College reaffirms network security

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On July 30, a fake email was sent out to the Swarthmore student population in the name of the registrar, Martin Warner. The identity of the perpetrator are being kept confidential by the Swarthmore College Computer Society (SCCS), but such an incident begs the question of how secure is the college’s network technology infrastructure is.

Phrased in layman’s terms by representatives of SCCS, the majority of the real world cyber attacks are from bad actors scanning for exposed or unprotected home devices. They send out server requests through the network, scrolling through servers upon servers until they stumble upon an unprotected device. And exposed unprotected devices can be exploited. The Swarthmore network is no exception, since the servers are run by publicly exposed IP addresses. According to a member of SCCS, the college’s network continually runs into foreign server scans and requests looking for unprotected devices.

“[There are] queries coming into our server from all over the world every few seconds that are just random servers looking for open ports every few seconds … I think a lot of the people aren’t really aware of the sheer volume [of attacks] that comes towards the servers that are maintained by the SCCS and the Swarthmore Information Technology Service (ITS),” said a representative of SCCS. “And despite that, the ITS and the Official Swarthmore Servers get massive, massive amounts of malicious traffic. And as students we effectively never see the result of that.”

Keeping in mind this structure of attack, ITS has implemented measures to preemptively prevent exposed ports and vulnerability to the general requests. Thus, Swarthmore is generally secure when it comes to common cyber attacks. In the words of an SCCS representative, the Swarthmore network is not a “low hanging fruit” when it comes to general cyber attacks.

“There are literally tens of thousands of probes of Swarthmore’s network every hour — the security systems we have in place protect our network and campus from any intrusions,” wrote ITS Chief Joel Cooper in an email.

Aside from protecting the Swarthmore network from common attacks, ITS is also vigilant in other types of attacks. According to Cooper, arguably the most challenging part of maintaining network security at Swarthmore is preventing phishing attacks.

“You get an email from Amazon that looks so real telling you they just delivered you new flatscreen TV except you didn’t order one.  You panic, click the link, enter your username and password, and you’ve been phished,” Cooper explained in an email.

To match the growing sophistication of the phishing attacks, ITS has made changes in improving its defenses. This year, ITS is implementing the DUO two-factor authentication to its network security system. According to the ITS website, the DUO system adds an “additional identity verification by requesting something you know (your username and password) along with something you have (a mobile phone, tablet, or landline).”

The Swarthmore network is quite secure when it comes to non-target specific attacks, but the nature of the fake Martin Warner email is a target specific attack. According to Professor of Computer Science  Jeffrey Knerr, though Swarthmore’s network system is highly fortified like Google, Yahoo, or Facebook servers, the college’s network system is not completely invulnerable to any attacks.

“We strive to make it difficult for our systems to be breached.  However, as in the physical world, if someone is highly motivated enough to break into something (a building or a computer), they’re going to find a way given sufficient time and resource,” Cooper wrote in an email.

Furthermore, it is also much easier to hack into a system, if a bad actor already has an account on the given domain. According to Knerr, it is much easier to access and navigate a given system when a person already has an account on the domain.

“I don’t think any system is totally secure, especially once they’re on the system. Like if you were talking about working at Google. Is Google secure? Well if I have an account on Google servers and I want to do evil, it’s much easier for me to do that if I’m already in, ” said Knerr.

And although the fake email attack was slightly more sophisticated, since the person must have had domain specific knowledge about computers, SCCS assures that it is nothing to worry about.

“In some ways, they were extremely naive because they left trails all through our logs. We had information about the person in six different places on our server, and it was not very hard to figure out who it was. So it wasn’t somebody who was anywhere near talented enough to actually carry out this attack with any kind of success, because they got caught basically instantly,” said an SCCS Representative.

Furthermore, SCCS assured that with the protections set in place, items such as a student’s financial information stored on the Banner and MySwat are essentially impenetrable, unlike older less secure systems such as email.

Though no technological system is always fully secure, the college’s technology community and administrators are continuously finding ways to improve the system, and taking steps to ensure that the students, staff, and faculty at Swarthmore are cyber-secure.

 

CS enrollment continues to swell, department responds

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Sam Evans ’17 had intended on pursuing computer science as a potential major. However, each of the four times he registered for a course in the department, he was denied enrollment as there were more students registered than spots available.

“This really hindered my academic goals as I had always intended on pursuing CS,” said Evans. “It was really frustrating not being able to take the classes [I wanted to] even after waiting two years to get in.”

The Numbers

In recent years, the college’s department of computer science has seen enrollment rise at a rate which the faculty has struggled to keep up with. Professor and Chair of computer science Tia Newhall described the growth as a large-scale phenomenon affecting colleges across the country.

“It’s a national trend. Computer science departments across the country, and probably internationally as well, are growing,” Newhall said.

According to a 2017 publication of the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees obtained in computer and information sciences increased 50 percent between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 as compared to a 15 percent increase in all other disciplines combined. Other colleges have reported a similar strain on their computer science departments to adjust to the sudden popularity. The University of California, San Diego, for instance, has seen the faculty-to-student ratio within its computer science department drop to 1-to-44, according to a May 2016 article in the The San Diego Union-Tribune.

 

Swarthmore associate professor of computer science Andrew Danner noted that the median class size in computer science falls between 30 and 40 students whereas the median class size across all disciplines at the college is roughly between 10 and 20 students. The college’s 2015-2016 common data report recorded that 41.9 percent of classes in all subjects are sized between 10 and 19 students.

According to Newhall, the number of computer science majors has spiked from an average of 12 majors per year to 55. In the sophomore class, she estimated that there will be around 55 majors.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the numbers that we’ve had in the past where we had maybe twelve majors a year,” Newhall said.

Professor and Department Chair of English Peter Schmidt believes that the enrollment growth in computer science is indicative of a general increase of interest in STEM programs. Still, he does not feel that the enrollment boom in natural sciences has taken resources away from humanities. Instead, he worries that the growth of STEM programs may result in a disproportionate number of majors in the natural sciences as compared to the humanities and the social sciences.

“The big thing we worry about is making sure admissions recruits people and accepts people … who are definitely saying they’re interested in the humanities,” he said. “If we get below 10 percent of people majoring in the humanities, that’s really skewing everything.”

According to a 2015 article in the Phoenix, the percentage of humanities majors in the class of 2015 was 18 percent, the lowest rate in decades. How this rate will change in response to the recent growth in STEM majors remains a question.

cs lotto

Lotteries

Katherine Huang ’18, a computer science major and student assistant in the department, observed that the growth of the department has spiked since her first year at Swarthmore.

“When I took CS 21 [Introduction to Computer Science], the room was maybe half-full,” Huang recalled.

Huang believes the sophomore class has felt the worst of the growing pains.

“The year that’s been hit hardest is probably the sophomores because sophomores are usually eligible to take some upper-level courses, but this time around, they really can’t because juniors and seniors are in them,” Huang explained.

Amy Shmoys ’19, who recently applied to the computer science major, expressed her concern with being lotteried out of upper-level courses.

“I’m definitely very nervous about being lotteried out; it’s a very realistic thing,” she said.

Shmoys, who was lotteried out of CS 63: Artificial Intelligence this semester, does not feel that she was denied a key opportunity since she had luck in the lottery system in a class she finds interesting.

“It’s not so much that I’m missing out on learning stuff; it’s that the order is [unpredictable]. You pick and choose, and you get into different stuff,” she said.

According to Newhall, now more students enroll in introductory courses than can be admitted into the class, so students in over-subscribed classes are selected via a lottery system.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we have to lottery students out of CS courses at Swarthmore right now,” she said.

Newhall believes that enrollment in computer science is growing because the skills taught are applicable to a wide range of subjects.

“I think computer science is becoming more of a service discipline. It’s becoming more important to know some computational thinking and programming skills,” Newhall said. “A lot of disciplines [are] trying to solve problems using large amounts of data, and computer science has the solution.”

Newhall expressed her regret that more students cannot take CS 21, explaining that the problem-solving techniques taught in the introductory course are applicable to a wide range of disciplines.

“We like having and want to have a more diverse student body in CS 21. [There are] students who may go onto major, students who may never take another CS course again, students who may use programming and computational skills directly, and students who may just use it indirectly,” Newhall said.

Upper-Level Courses and the Honors Program

The wave of enrollment has also affected the format and size of upper-level courses. According to Assistant Professor Ameet Soni, the department must cap enrollment in upper-level classes at 40 students due to availability of space. Newhall stated that the program can no longer offer seminar courses as a result of the large number of students trying to take them.

“We used to have, for the senior comprehensive, a senior seminar, and we just can’t offer it anymore. We don’t have the faculty resources to offer an upper level class that’s capped at 12 or 15 [students],” she said.

There have also been changes to the honors computer science program to make up for the removal of two-credit seminars from the course offerings. According to the college’s description of the honors major requirement, students must now complete two two-credit preparations, which entail combining two advanced courses from a preapproved list. The structure of the preparation emphasizes the material of one course over the second, so that there is one “focus” course and one “breadth” course.

Soni stated that the department recently adjusted its requirements, so that students do not have to take the courses simultaneously as this has brought about scheduling difficulties for students.

“It was hard for students to be able to predict when the courses were going to be offered, so they weren’t necessarily able to take both courses before they graduated,” Soni said. “We’ve loosened that requirement to be focused more on one course rather than … two courses at the same time, and so that’s added some flexibility for students.”

According to Danner, the department hires visiting professors frequently, and it has each professor teach an upper-level course concentrated in their research area during the visiting period. However, he explained that, since visiting faculty are hired for only two or three years at a time, it is difficult for the department to plan courses in advance, so student majors are met with uncertainties when planning their academic track.

“It’s really hard for us to schedule, and it’s super hard for students to plan,” Danner said. “When we have students make up their sophomore plans, … we can kind of have an idea as to what courses will be offered, but it’s a sketch.”

Regardless of these changes, Soni observed that the honors computer science major is not very common.

“We’ve noticed that there [are] not as many students interested in pursuing honors,” Soni said.

Huang expressed a similar observation.

 

“Honors CS is pretty rare because CS is such a young field, but now it’s not really possible,” Huang said, reasoning that with the elimination of seminar courses, students are less likely to seek an honors major.

In-class accommodations

At all class levels, professors have had to adjust their styles of teaching in order to cater to the increased numbers of students in their classes.

Soni describes how technological aids have allowed him to retain some aspects of discussion-based learning in his classes.

“We’re bringing more technology into the classroom in order to help us. Ironically, most of us did not use PowerPoint until a few years ago,” Soni stated.

According to Soni, when he first started teaching in the department in 2011, many professors taught from chalkboards. Now, they have switched to screens. Soni videotapes lectures and posts material online before class periods for students to review. He explained that, in this way, students are prepared for the topics covered during class, so he can devote more of the hour to engaging students in exercises and small-group discussions. Soni believed that the peer instruction format, which entails a student-centered approach to learning that emphasizes application of material over pure lecture, allows students to interact more directly with one another and learn collaboratively.

“The reason it’s called peer instruction is [because the students are] talking to each other and learning the ideas together and grappling with some of the murkier questions,” Soni explained.

Soni also mentioned that many professors now employ classroom response devices, or clickers, in their larger classes in order to gauge students’ understanding. Danner noted the helpfulness of the technology.

“More faculty are using clickers in the classroom to get quick feedback from the class. It’s hard when you have a sea of 50 to 60 people; it’s very anti-Swarthmore,” he said.

Soni noted that professors have used the smaller format of lab sections to work with students individually. He said that, in spite of the growing enrollment, the department has been able to offer more sections of each lab and has kept the sections at manageable sizes. In addition, a new computer science lab was constructed in Clothier Hall.

“I think a lot of our changes have been [concerned with] trying to still maintain the contact we have with individuals in the class as opposed to losing them in the sea of students,” Soni explained.

Newhall praised the learning opportunities a small class can provide.

“There’s just more opportunities in a smaller class for students to do presentations [and] in-class work, and then go around and look at what other students have done,” Newhall said.

Moving Forward

The department hopes to hire more faculty to bring down class sizes in response to the enrollment boom. However, Newhall does not believe that the pace at which the department can hire faculty has kept up with the rate of growth.

“It’s kind of a slow process. It’s not keeping pace with how quickly we’re growing,” Newhall said with regards to the procedure for hiring tenure-track positions.

According to Provost Tom Stephenson, the tenure process is intended to be slow since professors often hold positions for extended periods of time.

“The process for adding tenure lines is designed to be slow and deliberate, so that we can make these commitments, which can last for the careers of a faculty member, carefully,” Stephenson said.

Newhall suggested that, despite the boom in undergraduate enrollment, there hasn’t been a consequent increase in candidates seeking tenure.

 

“There are lots and lots of positions, but there hasn’t been a big increase in the number of PhDs produced. So there’s fewer candidates for every position out there,” Newhall stated.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, the number of doctoral degrees conferred in computer science only rose 25 percent, as compared to the 50 percent increase of bachelor’s degrees obtained during the same time period. Additionally, the rates at which bachelor’s and doctoral degrees are awarded in any discipline have increased by similar percentages, each around 15 percent.

Currently, there are several visiting lines in the department, and Newhall would like to see these professors gain more permanent positions.

“This semester, more than 50 percent of our courses will be taught by visitors … We’d like to change that percentage over time, and we’d like to be able to offer more courses … We certainly recognize what the issues are, and we wish we had more faculty resources to help,” Newhall said.

Student Reactions

In spite of increased class sizes, students in the department are pleased with the attention they have received from professors.

“I always felt like my professors were there for me whenever I needed them,” Huang said.

Shmoys also expressed her satisfaction with faculty teaching.

“All of the professors have been phenomenal despite the huge class sizes,” Shmoys said. “So far, all the professors I’ve had have had accessible office hours, and beyond that, [they] are always around in the CS department, so it’s very easy to just swing by and ask questions.”

Even so, Shmoys noted the difficulty of interacting with professors on an individual basis during class periods.

“If you make the effort to go and see [professors], then it’s very easy to have a relationship with the professor, but you don’t get it as much in class,” she said.

On behalf of the department, Newhall reflected on the responses of faculty to the increase in enrollment.

“We’re trying to do what we can do, given the numbers of students that we have and the number of faculty resources that we have. It’s not what we’d like to do necessarily, but it’s what we can do,” Newhall asserted.

Huang expressed her wish for a more stable future for the department.

“I hope that the CS department will be able to find its balance in hiring faculty and holding classes,” Huang affirmed.

In the face of spiking student enrollment, the computer science department has had to make sacrifices as it struggles to maintain a new equilibrium. The future of the program remains uncertain, but students feel adequately supported by the department in spite of its changes.

Future of honors program in question

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Last week, members of the class of 2019 assembled in the Lang Performing Arts Center for an event entitled “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” sponsored by members of the faculty and the Dean’s office. “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” is designed to be an information session about the sophomore planning process. Five of the speakers at the event, each representing different academic disciplines, gave short speeches solely dedicated to explaining and advertising the college’s honors program.

The emphasis on the honors program was deliberate. Professor of English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator Craig Williamson explained why he thought the emphasis was necessary.

“I think that the faculty feels like honors is a great program. In the old days, students already kind of knew what the honors program was like, but it seems like that’s not so much true anymore, at least from some of the feedback we’ve gotten,” he said.

Williamson noted that in the past four or five years, there have always been three or four speakers at “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” to discuss the honors program. While he also mentioned that much of the information about honors could have been given at the designated honors program informational session, Williamson explained that some students who had not been set on doing honors prior to “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing” changed their minds after the event.

However, he could not point to a specific reason for why he believes students are less familiar with the honors program.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that question. I think the academic mission has become vastly complicated over the years. You know, students want to do a variety of things. I think that because the number of students doing honors this year has come down somewhat in the last 4 or 5 years, there are not so many people doing it and talking to other students about it,” he explained.

According to honors program enrollment data from the college’s Office of Institutional Research obtained by The Phoenix, the number of students both graduating and majoring with honors has declined in the past five years. Williamson explained that five years ago, the normal amount of honors majors would have been around 105 students. In the past few years, the amount of honors majors has hovered around 70 students, even as the average class size has increased. During this 5 year period, humanities majors as a whole declined, while STEM majors rose in what Williamson described as “astronomical terms”.

“The honors program has always been a signature program at Swarthmore. I think the faculty largely believes in the program and supports the program. Not universal, but I think most of us would be sad to see the program disappear somehow,” he said.

When asked if there was an enrollment threshold, after which the honors program would be ended, Williamson indicated that the numbers were getting close, provided that the trend of decreasing popularity for the honors program continues.

“It’s hard to know what that threshold of enrollment is. I think we’re close to it. If you teach seminars, you need to have them reasonably filled up in order to teach them. If you offer a seminar, and two people sign up, you can’t do the seminar. It’s hard to know,” he said.

However, Williamson still remains hopeful.

“I think the program will strengthen and will rise again, but I’m not a prophet about these things. Nobody knows what the magic number is. I don’t think we necessarily need get it back up to 105, but I personally would like to see it around 90. That would be a strong number for the program in this particular era,” he continued.

Williamson attributes this decline to the rise in popularity of STEM course majors both at the college and in the nation. Humanities majors have declined at the college as a result too.

“Historically it’s been true that the strongest student support of honors has been in the humanities division, and the weakest support has been in the natural sciences and engineering. So, you know, the movement in the last three or four years in general away from the humanities majors and into the STEM fields, for whatever reason, has influenced the number of people going into honors,” he said.

Assistant Professor of computer science Ameet Soni shared his perspective on the CS honors program with respect to the growing popularity of STEM majors.

“We would love to have honors seminars, but we have a huge enrollment problem. In fact, we used to have two seminars but we haven’t been able to offer them in seminar format because of the enrollment pressures. If we ever got to the point again where we could offer honors seminars, then we would probably change the honors requirement,” said Soni.

Currently, the computer science department does not offer designated honors seminars. Instead, honors students must take two related high level courses concurrently to count toward one honors preparation. The department has experienced a sharp increase in the amount of course majors. In 2010, 11 students graduated with a course major in computer science. By 2014, that number was 48. Since then, only 3 students have graduated with an honors major and just 11 with an honors minor in computer science.

“I don’t think the way that we structure honors discourages students from doing it. Comparing to some disciplines, I’ve heard that to get into the popular seminars you have to be an honors student. We have a relatively flat curriculum where we want students to be able to engage in any of the type of courses the want to,” Soni continued. “Of the students I’ve talked to that I’ve done research with, a lot of them say that the haven’t seen a lot of benefit in doing the honors program. They’d rather have the flexibility to kind of change their path as the semester goes along.”

Soni later pointed to some possible reasons why students are choosing to complete course majors over honors ones: students increasingly prefer to study a large breadth of material across divisions rather than an intense focus in one area, and a lack of interest in attending graduate school directly after Swarthmore. The honors program has often been regarded as good preparation for graduate school.

Williamson further lamented the decrease in humanities majors in general.

“There are some places like Harvey Mudd that see themselves like kind of liberal arts colleges, but are really STEM schools with a little bit of liberal arts stuff. I’ve always felt that would never happen to Swarthmore. For the longest time I’ve felt that. I’m not so sure about that anymore,” he said. “I think if the percentage of majors in the humanities division got down to below 10%, I think that would be a great loss in terms of the students and their capacity to learn different things and exchange ideas.”

Dean of Admissions and Vice-President of the college Jim Bock described the Office of Admissions’ procedure on admitting a class that represents all the academic distributions.

“Typically, when we make admissions decisions, we admit to the College and not to the major, except in the case of engineering. Over the last few years, interest in humanities has dropped on a national level, and we have placed more emphasis on genuine humanities interest when making admissions decisions.  ‘Undecided’ is still a popular choice for students to list on their college applications, and as a liberal arts college, Swarthmore allows students the freedom to change their major before matriculation and once on campus. Because of that, we do not place much emphasis on what a student indicates as a potential major on their application,” he said.

Bock also stated that the Office of Admissions continues to highlight the honors program in its tours and other communications.

Students arrive at the decision to participate in the honors program for various different reasons. For Joe Boninger ‘16, the only honors major in computer science in his class, deciding to do honors was not a calculated decision.

“My decision to do Honors was pretty impulsive—I wanted to be achieving more, academically, than I was at the time, and I figured I would probably be taking all the classes and doing summer research anyway. For most of senior year I thought I’d made the wrong decision,” he said.

For others, the decision-making process was more straightforward.

“Essentially I chose to do the honors economics major for the seminars. Some of the more popular ones give priority to honors students, and taking these courses felt like a unique opportunity only available here at Swarthmore that I could always stop if I decided the seminars weren’t for me,” said Sam Wallach Hanson ‘18, an honors major in economics.

“I took an intermediate biology class my sophomore fall and really enjoyed the experience I had, both in the coursework and with the professor, which led me to working with that professor the summer after and eventually choosing to continue that research as my honors thesis,” explained Dan Lai ‘17, and honors major in biology.

At “Chocolates, Chai, & Choosing,” Williamson stressed that students who graduate with honors find the program to be a very gratifying experience. Boninger, Hanson, and Lai all echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t regret doing Honors now, because I did learn a lot of cool stuff and I forced myself not to spend too much time studying for the exams. That said, I definitely would not have done Honors if I knew about the reduced senior week,” said Boninger.

Senior week is a week of festivities at the end of the year held for graduating seniors. Last year, the length of senior week was reduced.

“What I really appreciate about the program is how supportive the environment is as an honors biology major…as even though my thesis is my independent work, my peers and professors have been a consistent source of positive yet critical feedback. The honors program as a whole is, in my opinion, a challenging yet incredibly rewarding intellectual exercise, and I think it’s helped me build a strong foundation of resolve and discipline I hope to keep with me after graduating,” continued Lai.

“So far the honors program has been great. I took the behavioral and experimental economics seminar last semester and am currently taking advanced microeconomics. Spending up to 5 hours at a time with 5-6 other students and a professor was intimidating at first, but I feel like the degree to which I master the subjects, and the depth to which I learn, is totally unmatched by any other educational setting I’ve experienced before,” echoed Hanson.

Williamson lastly reflected on the possibility of the honors program disappearing in the future.

“I think there’s a sense in the academic world today that this is the thing that really makes Swarthmore stand out as different from all these other liberal arts colleges. If we lost it, I think it would do something serious to the reputation of the college,” he concluded.

It remains uncertain whether honors enrollment numbers will rebound or continue to decline into the future.

Amid changes in Computer Science, Capstone is the first to go

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In the midst of a rapid increase of computer science majors, the department faces a lack of faculty members, resulting in a changed Senior capstone.

In the past, Senior Conference has been a seminar-style class of about 10 students that takes place in the fall of senior year.

“Usually CS 97 is our big senior capstone class. Whoever the professor is who’s teaching it—usually a new professor—they pick a topic, and then, all the seniors explore that topic for the whole semester,” explained computer science major Kendell Byrd ’17. “Then, at the end, they do presentations and projects, either by themselves or in a group.”

But this year, the capstone has changed completely. Instead of coming in the form of a class, students will work on a project independently and present it at the end of the semester.

“[The old capstone] was meant to be sort of a taste of what a computer science graduate school class would be like —reading research papers in a subfield of computer science, discussing them, working on a project that’s related to original research for the papers that you’ve read,” explained Visiting Professor Bryce Wiedenbeck. “We don’t have enough faculty to teach 10 to 15 person seminar classes at this point.”

Wiedenbeck, who graduated from Swarthmore as a computer science major in 2008, said that CS 97 was part of the reason he decided to go to grad school for computer science.

“When I graduated, the computer science department had about 15 majors, and four tenure track professors, and one visitor,” said Wiedenbeck. “Now the number of professors has doubled and the number of students has probably quadrupled.”

The capstone has now changed to a model where students present a poster on a project that they have done in the computer science department during their time at Swarthmore.

“I did research here my summer after sophomore year, so I’m just going to do my capstone poster on that,” said Martina Costagliola ’17. “It’s pretty cool. It’s nice, even if you didn’t do research, you can just choose a bigger project that you did in one of your CS courses.”

However, not all students see the change in the capstone as a positive thing. Some students had been planning for their capstone ahead of time, and now, they have to readjust to the new requirements.

“They would rather change the capstone than take away that seminar experience. Personally, I’m a little frustrated by it just because of my specific situation. I’m also a linguistics major, and my linguistics thesis is basically a [coding project], and I asked if I could use that as my senior capstone,” said Lee Tarlin ’17. “They discussed it and they’re not going to let me do it, so now I’m planning on going back and doing something from sophomore year.”

Wiedenbeck was also quick to note that “the department universally prefers the old capstone.”

He went on to say that, apart from the senior seminars, he was not aware of a class that had fewer than 25 students in the last couple of years. The Phoenix was not able to fact check this statement because the college does not release class enrollment statistics.

Wiedenbeck explained that the number of students interested in computer science has increased so rapidly that the school has not had time to catch up. It takes a year for a department to apply for the college to hire new faculty members. After that, it takes another year to hire the faculty members.

“I was actually on the search committee for a tenure track professor last year,” said Costagliola. “[The department is] really trying to hire more professors because they know that the popularity of C.S. has been increasing a lot, even just from when I was a freshman to now.”

Even with the exhausted faculty and resources, students still found that they were getting the attention that they need from their professors.

“In terms of the support from the faculty that’s there, there’s definitely a lot,” said Tahmid Rahman ’17. “I’m just thinking about my C.S. classes and the number of times I’ve been able to just meet with the professor one-on-one and discuss things that are either related to the class or not related to the class. I found that professors tend to be very open.”

Swarthmore also offers computer science students opportunities beyond the classroom. Each year, the school pays for students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration, a national women’s computing conference.

“People at Swarthmore have connections,” said Byrd. “I got picked to do it my sophomore year and it was fantastic.”

Overall, Costagliola managed to sum up Swarthmore’s computer science department in one sentence. “It’s not bad,” she said. “It’s just different.”

The department hopes to eventually hire more faculty members, thus allowing computer science students to enjoy the small classes Swarthmore boasts.

WICS offers women in computer science support, opportunities

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We’ve all heard the statistics: women are pretty drastically underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly those of computer science and engineering. A mere 17 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees, nationally, are awarded to women.  Although Swarthmore typically does a little better than this national average, it is still disproportionate relative to the number of women attending the college.

 

Because of this uneven distribution of men and women in the Computer Science department, the student group Women in Computer Science was formed to provide a supportive community for women in this field dominated by men.

 

“It can be kind of intimidating to walk into a CS class, especially at an upper level as a women when you’re surrounded by men. Having a support system and being able to talk to people who are dealing with similar things can be really important in helping people feel comfortable staying in the field rather than just taking an intro-level course and then dropping,” said club outreach coordinator Ali Rosenzweig ‘18.  

 

The introductory CS classes–such as Introduction to Comp Sci, Introduction to Computer Systems and Data Structures and Algorithms–are fairly even in terms of how many men and women are enrolled in the class, although the number of women in CS classes drops off in higher level courses, according to WiCS webmaster Martina Castigliola ’17. “One major goal of WiCS is to create this welcoming community filled with great opportunities for women interested in CS really early, so that they are more encouraged to continue with the major,” Castigliola said.

 

Castigliola echoed Rosenzweig’s feelings about the importance of a welcoming and supportive environment. She hopes that it will create space for women in the department to ask each other for both personal and academic advice.We also want to create projects for members to participate in, and create a platform that allows members to get together and participate in side projects on their own time, and to create opportunities for members to receive help and guidance with career related topics – like technical interview prep, resume reviews, and networking opportunities,” Castigliola said.

 

Rachel Diamond, co-president of WiCS also brought up the importance of having women get involved in CS. “Everybody interested in CS should be able to and be encouraged to pursue their interest, and groups like WiCS are an important part of making CS accessible and welcoming to everyone,” said co-president Rachel Diamond ’18.

 

Rosenzweig knows the importance of a supportive community because she has, in her high school particularly, experienced what it is like not to have such a support system. “When I was younger that intimidation factor of being in a heavily male-dominated field definitely made me not start earlier. Like we had a high school robotics team that was almost all guys, and it was a very distinctive group and you kind of knew if you weren’t a part of it. I thought it was really cool but I never felt comfortable joining so I didn’t start CS until college,” Rosenzweig said.

 

One of the club’s main focuses is to prepare women in CS for future job opportunities through events with Career Services, teaching resume advice and technical career prep, and job interview preparation. “These are useful skills that everyone needs but I think women tend to be less prepared for it because of the personalities that we’re trained to have; that you have to be more sure of yourself in those settings than women are normally encouraged to be,” Rosenzweig said.

 

WiCS does a lot of work with Swarthmore alumni in order to increase these networking opportunities and to work on job readiness. The club is starting a new mentorship program that pairs current students with alumni working in computer-science related fields, in order for students to gain insight as to what a career in the field might be like.

 

For Diamond, the experience has been exciting and inspiring. “WiCS has made me realize how amazing Swarthmore alumni are- they are great people to reach out to and they have experience that is a great resource for current students,” Diamond said.

 

While the group does focus a lot on job and interview preparation, another one of its main goals is to create a safe space for women in CS fields by creating a community of women so it feels like there’s a stronger female presence in the department. “We have events that aren’t structured, so it’s essentially just us doing homework or hanging out in the robot lab in Sci and listening to music and eating oreos and whatever. If you have people who have questions specifically about gender related issues or just in general and aren’t comfortable asking professors or aren’t comfortable asking certain peers then it kind of gives them an environment where they can do that more comfortably,” Rosenzweig said.

 

WiCS also allows members to travel to coding conferences, such as Grace Hopper, the largest all women’s tech conference in the world, as well as events like FemmeHacks at UPenn and WECode at Harvard.

 

One event that WiCS held recently was an opportunity for people to share their externship experiences with the group. One student’s account of her experience that stood out to Rosenzweig did so because of the small details about gender dynamics in the workplace. The event created a space for such things, which may not normally be considering when students apply to jobs or internships, to be discussed openly.

 

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