Civilization Prospers with Computer Science
What you already know (or suspect) about Computer Science:
Virtually all of us understand the value of computer science. Its practicality in the job market is constantly making headlines. We are told that being a software developer is the best gig in tech. We are bombarded with figures from the federal labor bureau telling us that programmers are wealthy and the tech industry is booming. We read that developers enjoy their jobs. We might expect that at a school constantly boasting about being the happiest college in America, we would be self-selecting for the ‘happiest job in America’.
But we’re not.
According to Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) common data set, last year only 1.66% of the graduating class majored in computer science (CS). According to our Computer Science Department, less than 5% of the class of 2015 will graduate either as a CS major, or with a sequence in computer science.
Now, you might argue that CMCers are inherently not interested in computer science. 67% of our recent graduates land somewhere in the trifecta of consulting, finance and government; the majority of us aren’t looking to be programmers. But when polled, CMCers unanimously agreed that computer science seems like an important topic, and 92.3% of students said they were interested in taking a class.
Furthermore, even within consulting, finance, and government, computer science is becoming increasingly important. Both boutique and ‘big three’ consultancies are becoming more reliant on predictive software and big data analytics. Professor Manfred Keil, who teaches statistics and econometrics at CMC, and quantitative data analysis for the Silicon Valley Program (SVP), explains: “To work in consulting you should have quantitative ability. Today, that means a solid foundation in statistics in order to understand and interpret the numbers, and a background in computer science in order to gather the data.” Professor Keil continues, saying that a recent alumna echoed this idea when describing her experience while working at the Federal Reserve. She told Professor Keil that she was tasked with narrowing down a large pool of potential analysts for a single position. In order to do this, her first step was to eliminate any candidates without programming experience on their resumes. This took out more than 2/3 of the applicants.
So, clearly computer science is important, and relevant to our grads. Then, why is it that at Claremont School of Economics, where as many as 50% of our students graduate with a degree that incorporates an economics sequence, we appear to shy away from the quantitative challenge of Computer Science?
What is Stopping Us?
The biggest reason: we’re intimidated.
Of those polled who expressed a desire to take a computer science class, but had yet to do so, the primarily barriers fell into two categories; (1) fear of failure; such as literally failing the course, or being overwhelmed by the workload, and (2) institutional barriers like ‘finding the time’ and ‘over-enrollment’.
At first glace, these two motives might not seem to be related. However, when taken in context of a phenomenon on campus that has been called ‘voting with your feet’ (or ‘revealed preferences’ for all the economists out there), it becomes obvious that the solutions to these two barriers are interrelated.
So, what is ‘voting with your feet’? It is what Harvey Mudd College is doing right. It is the flock of CMCers that walk up to Mudd two or three days a week to take Professor Dodds’ CS5 class. CS5 is Harvey Mudd’s introductory course, required for all Mudd freshmen, and taught in a way that is accessible to anyone. Prof Dodds explains the goal of CS5, as “we want everyone to be able to answer that question of ‘should I be here?’ with a ‘Yes!’ So we’re just conniving to try and make that happen.”
CS5 does this in a number of ways. For example, it focuses heavily on the conceptual framework of computer science. Professor Dodds says, “CS5’s design is meant to be a skillset and mindset”. The course is structured not to produce software engineers, per se, but to help students understand conceptual design so that they can “feel comfortable enough to use computation to [their] advantage for [their] own project; personal, professional, whatever”.
CS5 also adheres to a non-traditional course structure. The class is broken down into sections based on the student’s prior knowledge. This means the most advanced students are in a class together and are challenged, whereas the new students can focus on building basic concepts without being intimidated. Additionally, Harvey Mudd has a legion of tutors (who also grade homework, and are therefore called grutors) available every night of the week to help. If you do your work, it is virtually impossible to fail. If you show up to grutoring, then you can do your work. Additionally, the classes permit collaborative programming and focus on conceptual topics, like recursion, that are often not covered as extensively in introductory courses, but build a foundation for later understanding of computer science.
But if you are reading this as a CMCer, you are probably wondering what the specific outcomes of these policies were at Harvey Mudd. What is the concrete data? Well, at Mudd, computer science is the fastest growing major. In 2014, 26% of the graduating class was computer science majors. That’s up from 12.7% in 2008.
Of particular interest is Mudd’s data from before these policies were implemented in 2006. And although these policies are beneficial to all students, the class structure was actually a targeted (and successful) attempt to increase the number of women in computer science. At Mudd, over the last few years, up to 50% of computer science majors are women. This is phenomenal considering that pre-2006 female participation in CS at Mudd hovered around 3-4%, and nationally, participation is typically less than 20%.
One of the barriers (among many) to increasing female participation in computer science is lack of confidence and experience in CS prior to college. In this way, CMC is similar to Mudd. In my survey, fear of failure was the most commonly cited reason for not taking a CS class. Often this was because the participants said they had no prior background and weren’t confident that they could catch up to ‘whiz kids’ who had been tinkering with CS since they were in middle school. It makes sense that CMCers would be intimidated. Although the Registrar’s office was unable to release exact figures on the number of incoming freshmen with CS experience, computer science is neither a requirement nor recommendation for incoming freshman, nor is it a required GE for current CMCers. By the time we graduate, many of us have heard about the value of CS, but few have had experience programming.
The good news is that, as a school, we are choosing to change that. We are ‘voting with our feet’ and heading up to Mudd to take Professor Dodd’s CS5 class. In fact, after 106 CMCers (not to mention another ~100 students from the other 5Cs) took CS5 in the fall of 2013, Mudd became overwhelmed and had to limit enrollment to their own students during fall of 2014. This spring, CS5 has re-opened to off campus students, and we are back to beating down their doors. Currently, the 200-person class is full, with 223 students waiting on perm requests.
We’re Still CMC
Now, many of you might be saying, “If I wanted to be a CS major, I’d have gone to Mudd in the first place.” We self-select to study government, economics, and finance; it is with good reason that we are known for these fields. They are as ingrained in our identity as an institution as our motto, ‘civilization prospers with commerce’. This doesn’t need to change, but we might need an addendum.
We can still be government and economics majors. But it’s imperative that we add some new skills. Even outside of consulting and finance, economists with a technical streak are extremely valuable. According to the Economist, “Tech giants like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn all hire economists… those drawn to the subject by the urge to understand the crisis or the lure of Wall Street might be better off shifting track, twinning economics with coding rather than trading.”
Hiring directors at these same tech companies echo this idea. Tara Stewart, a Program Manager at Facebook, spoke to me about her experience interviewing and hiring new team members. She said that, “I actually prefer[ed] people for my past team, which was highly analytical, that weren’t computer science majors, and were liberal arts majors. I found that people thought differently… they would come up with more diverse ways of thinking about a problem.” In discussing an ideal candidate, she said that they look for individuals “who can find patterns, who are used to using analytical software, used to large data sets. [They are] fine with ambiguity and you can find patterns and tell stories”.
But, if you have not already begun racking up a few programming languages, all hope is not lost. Ms. Stewart also said “I really liked hiring people from that background because we found that the skills were really useful. People who had studied statistics, econometrics, macro or micro theory, anything like that could pick up more challenging concepts really quickly and could learn proprietary software on the job really quickly.”
Promoting Computer Science
In the past, CMC has had limited offerings for those interested in tech. In recent years this has begun to change. This is largely thanks to influential alumni like Steve Siegel (CMC ’87) and Bart Evans (CMC ’70), who helped found the Silicon Valley Program (SVP), as well as administration and faculty, who are working to broaden routes into the tech industry.
Professor Keil emphasizes that the mission of the SVP as he sees it and, as it was described by the late Bart Evans to him, was to “encourage CMCers to be productive, to make a mark in the next phase of product creation: Information technology. Converse to financial firms (like Goldman Sachs) which exist to move money and titles around and take a cut, the tech industry exists to create new and useful products… CMCers need to be part of it, and we need to help open those doors”.
For CMC administration, part of this process means forming a faculty committee focused on addressing the increasing demand for CS at CMC. Professor Nicholas Warner, our Dean of Faculty, emphasizes that CMC’s “approach to computer science courses is multidisciplinary”, and part of a “foundational skills-oriented curriculum”. At a school where many of us will need to use computing as a tool in whatever field we pursue, this integration is extremely important.
Equally important is keeping our CS offerings accessible to the student body. Professor Art Lee, Mathematics Department Chair and Professor of computer science at CMC, has recently designed a course specifically targeted at non-majors called Computing for the Web. Professor Lee says that it is for “those who may not have another opportunity to take a CS course, but want to understand computing fundamentals and web design”. The class shares some of the structure of CS5 (for example, in both courses students learn Python) but focuses more on building concrete data-analysis skills that will be practical for CMCers working in a broad array of fields.
But as an institution, we can (of course) be doing more. Candance Adelberg (CMC ’10), a recent graduate, and Program Manager at Google, says that to prepare students for jobs in tech “CMC can expose students to the [tech] industry in a much bigger way, bring it into the curriculum, socialize and popularize the industry, and give students more resources.”
The Bottom Line
As a school we are perfectly poised to join the tech world. Whether that means entering non-technical roles at software companies, technical roles at financial firms, or anything in between, is up to us. But, one thing that has been repeated by hiring professionals, professors, administrators, and alumni, including Ms. Adelberg is that “going in with some basic programming ability is critical.” So, as a school, let us do what we can to make CS classes accessible to everyone by following successful examples like Harvey Mudd’s. As a student body, let’s make the leap and find room for at least an introductory course. Maybe you will even feel like I did; that CS is not only useful, but also fun in its own right.
 Poll of 47 5C students, 26 CMCers, conducted online between Jan 8th and Jan 15th 2015.
 Data source: CMC registrar