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

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.

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