Inside Higher Ed recently published an article about students who are choosing a degree, often computer science, for the practical benefits, but then three years into their career, many are realizing they don’t want to code their whole life – despite computer science being a much broader field than mere coding.
How can students explore the nexus of their passions and their skills? How can they learn to do what they want to do for their own fulfillment along with what they need to do to stay employable?
Dr. Ray Klump, Professor and Chair of Mathematics and Computer Science at Lewis University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the future of computer science as an academic field, and Lewis’ 4 brand-new CS + X programs.
Helping Students Blend Passion with Practicality
“When I picked a major back in my senior year of high school,” Ray said, “I picked it based on practicality. What I really loved to do was write and there was a large part of me that wanted to be an English major and go into journalism and or creative writing. But my parents thought, “You probably should go into something that had a better job potential.”
Nothing had better job potential than math and physics, so Ray chose to become an electrical engineer. It paid off. Kind of.
“But I had to decide between my passion, which was writing, and studying something that at least conventional wisdom suggests it would lead to a better paying and surer job,” Ray said. “It’d be great to not have students make that choice.”
That experience led Ray to ask: Can we somehow merge two disciplines together effectively and efficiently without compromise and give quality education in both?
That’s what sparked the CS + X program.
A lot of computer science graduates enjoyed their work, but they also loved things besides coding. And their skills were cross-disciplinary. “While they might be working as a programmer for maybe an insurance company or at a bank, what they really would love to do is apply their coding skills, apply their networks or security skills to something else that is more germane to their other interests,” Ray explained.
So why not prepare students specifically for those other areas?
Who Are the CS + X Programs Designed For?
“Our four programs are CS + music, CS + theology, CS + political science and CS + history,” Ray told us. “We hope to have more coming soon as we start to explore this even further.”
The idea is that students will take roughly half their credits from computer science and half from the other discipline.
Students take computer science courses that focus on training them to write software, program, set up computer networks, and engage in cybersecurity.
Those courses compose about 30-35 credits. The rest of their coursework will come in history, political science, theology, or music depending on what they focused on. Faculty members in those other departments select the appropriate coursework.
Learners also enroll in two semesters worth of a foreign language and a mandatory internship either through the computer science side or the other discipline side. The program stays focused on helping students land jobs right after graduation.
It’s important to note that this is not a minor or a double major.
“This is going to be a Bachelor of Arts in computer science plus the other discipline,” Ray explained. “That was on purpose. We really want to set this apart as a separate kind of student, someone who is equally equipped to go into either field or a combination thereof.”
Why Create a CS + X Program?
Everyone needs to be literate in how computers can be used to solve problems. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to code. It does mean students need to become keen problem solvers.
That’s what a computer science education gives you. Languages, after all, come and go. Who knows if, in 10 years, there will still be a demand for Python. What is persistent though is the value of problem-solving.
“I found that as I focused more on the task of programming and a taking a problem and trying to solve it using this other sort of arcane language,” Ray said, “I’ve found that I’ve become a much better problem solver and it’s really benefited me.”
His professional experience writing software has helped him come up with quick, efficient solutions to problems and then go back and assess whether or not they work.
“That’s all that a programmer/computer scientist actually does,” Ray said.
Students get it, and they agree. “We’re complicated individuals, right?” Ray asked. “We have so many interests in so many areas and the opportunity to merge your professional skills with some other domain that really piques your interest, those kinds of opportunities are too rare.”
Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Concerning the Future of Computer Science as an Academic Field
Computer science programs need to recognize that there is tremendous richness in the discipline itself, but they also need to be open to the notion of serving other academic departments.
“Mathematicians, math departments or math programs have known this for a long time,” Ray said. “There are relatively few math majors, but everyone takes math courses and the math department or math program provides these sort of what are usually called service courses to majors in every other field. I think computer science needs to needs to take a similar sort of approach.”
Along with training your own majors, play a role in helping all students achieve some sort of computer literacy. Go beyond coding, and recognize that we want to train people to think computationally.
“That’s what computer scientists should focus on,” Ray said, “as they start to embrace a little bit more of a service attitude to what they do at a university.”
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