November 22, 2013

Tech support

More opportunities to learn computer skills benefit students, regardless of major.

As computing skills become increasingly important in the modern job market, demand for computer science courses at UChicago has grown significantly over the past few years. In response, the Department of Computer Science has worked to make its classes available to as many students as possible and to increase the number of students who are at least conversant in the language of computers. But the computer science (CS) department is reaching the limits of its resources, and further funding from the administration and support from other areas of the University is needed, but absent. The University prides itself on the holistic nature of its education, yet the nature of a well-rounded education has changed. The University needs to respond to the higher demand for computer skills through increased opportunity in the CS department as well as in non-academic departments.

Currently, the University offers five different sets of introductory computer science courses of varying difficulty, three of which are for non-majors. The largest and most popular are the 120s sequence—designed for non-majors—and the 150s sequence—the introductory course for majors that also sees many non-major students, according to Anne Rogers, an associate CS professor. Many of the students who take these courses plan to apply the skills they learn to their own fields of study. Rogers said that last year, even after accepting 20 more students than originally planned into CMSC 121, the department had to turn away 75 students total from the two sequences.

The University must ensure that it can provide these skills to all of the students who need and request them. The department is doing everything it can to accommodate the demand for these courses, yet does not have enough faculty and resources to do so. More funding could help to add another section for these sequences each quarter, or to add more lab sections. Whatever the solution, advanced computer skills are becoming indispensable in many fields of employment.

On the other hand, for those students not looking to use computer skills in their work lives, a less formal, non-graded option could be ideal. The University currently offers the less rigorous CMSC 105 and 106, the former of which saw only 29 of its 40 available spots filled this quarter. This indicates that students who are simply curious about programming or general computer skills are less inclined to commit to a quarter’s worth of class. A feasible alternative is for the University to support computer training through other departments. Recently, the University hosted a well-attended two-hour coding basics workshop on a Saturday; IT Services also holds training sessions for popular software. Career Advancement currently offers Microsoft Excel training to students in UChicago Careers in Business. These workshops could be extended to students outside of the program to supplement IT’s occasional offerings. Introductory workshops for coding and prevalent computer programs like Excel can provide a solid foundation for students interested in less technical fields.

Our university is one that prides itself on the completeness of the life of the mind, and in the modern world computer skills are part of a truly complete education. Whether students need the skills for their future and current employment or are simply looking to gain as complete an education as possible, the University should facilitate opportunities for students to gain competency in computer programming and other technical capabilities.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.