Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As the 2016-2017 class year comes to a close, a new set of Sophomore plans have been submitted to each department, with Economics, Computer Science, Political Science, and Biology leading the way in popularity. With 80 applicants, Computer Science has seen rapid growth over the years, reflecting national trends with an explosion of potential undergraduate majors in the field. Combined, students enrolling in Computer Science and Economics constitute about a third of the Class of 2019.
The Biology department had 48 students apply for majors, and 16 students signed up to pursue Neuroscience. Around 10 students signed up for the related field of Environmental Studies, according to Professor Elizabeth Vallen, the department chair of the Biology department.
The department of Political Science received approximately 56 sophomore plans. Professor Keith Reeves, the department chair of Political Science, noted that they are likely to receive more due to the ongoing revisions of the Sophomore plans. Professor Reeves also commented that the Department has averaged around 50+ sophomore plans for the past several years. He states, “Political Science remains a popular major, in large part, due to our superb faculty and incredibly curious students.” Reeves further explained, “it helps, too, that domestic and international politics speak to the continued relevance of understanding ‘why politics and political science matter.’”
The Economics department retains a considerable amount of applicants, with 83 students applying for it overall. 82 students applied for some form of course or honors major, and 1 student has applied for an honors minor. Nancy Carroll, the department administrator of Economics, commented that this is a slightly lower number than those observed last year; however, the department remains popular, and it is growing, as can be inferred by the presence of 13 tenure-track faculty members in Economics. Carroll said, “we have been the biggest major for years now.”
Last year, 84 students applied to the Computer Science department in their sophomore plans, 64 applying for a major and 20 applying for a minor. This year, the numbers were similar with approximately 60 students applying for some form of major, and around 20 students applying for minors.
“Undergraduate CS enrollments have just exploded,” Professor Tia Newhall, the department chair of Computer Science, said. “Swarthmore … we’re worse than average, but we’re not off the charts compared to everybody,” Newhall said in regards to the growth of Computer Science enrollments in Swarthmore compared to the national scene.
Newhall explained that the rise in popularity of Computer Science can be attributed to a variety of factors. “One thing is that Computer Science has become more of a service discipline, so it’s becoming more of a piece of basic knowledge that students feel like they need to know,” Newhall said, “no matter what students major in, having some cs is useful.” She noted that different disciplines may require certain amounts of programming skills to deal with complex problems and big data.
This growth in Computer Science has been explosive, but along with the increase in popularity comes an “increased demand on resources,” as is stated on the Computing Research Association’s website.
Professor Newhall addressed these grievances, stating that, “ the biggest problem we have is we don’t have the staff to meet the demands of CS by the students of Swarthmore […] getting new faculty lines is a slow process at the college.”
The remarkable growth of Computer Science enrollments has, unfortunately, outpaced this process of gaining new faculty members. Newhall further elaborates by noting the larger class sizes of the CS courses, which reach up to 30-40 students in upper-level classes. Along with the large class sizes, understaffing has also resulted in students experiencing difficulty enrolling into the classes. “We just wish we were able to provide students with more of a real Swarthmore experience in CS and be able to provide a CS experience to every Swarthmore student,” Newhall said.