Bringing Bootcamps into the Liberal Arts at Davidson College

What if we could combine the breadth of a liberal arts education with hard technology skills into a single experience that gives students enough exposure to be able to launch into a tech career immediately upon graduation?

Kristen Eshleman, Director of Innovation Initiatives at Davidson College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about bringing bootcamps into the liberal arts and to share advice for institutions looking to add additional hard skills into their liberal arts curriculum.


The Six-Week Tech Bootcamp at Davidson College

“The program was very much an experiment,” Kristen said. “We had a number of hypotheses we wanted to try out. We weren’t really sure which would stick.”

Davidson wanted the program to be in the credit-bearing space because they could see that alumni who had gone to bootcamps typically came from well-to-do backgrounds. These alumni had the resources and time to move to San Francisco and invest in a pricey bootcamp after already paying for a private college education. Most students can’t do that. Davidson’s program would make bootcamp accessible to more of the alumni.

“We took a couple of existing courses and said, ‘Let’s work with our folks who understand the bootcamp designs,” Kristen told us. “We sought out a couple of instructors that we knew were really high quality, and they helped us co-design and co-create this.” 

Davidson faculty members who oversaw these courses worked directly with the bootcamp instructor to bring that pedagogy and the content coverage together. Kristen and her team wrapped around that piece a very deliberate sort of business enabler skills and career exploration program. 

“It really is pulling all those things together and providing a very intensive, very challenging six-week experience for these students,” Kristen said. “And our Bay Area alumni came out in droves to support it. We had more than 23 Bay Area alumni participate in networking nights, bringing (bootcamp students) into their businesses, mentoring them on code review. It was just wonderful.”

The bootcamp experience covered a lot of the basic technical skills: HTML and CSS, internet technology, JavaScript, how to integrate those things with data structures, data storage, talking about deployment and security, and getting into prototyping.

Everything was project based. Each week students switch teams and work on a project of their choosing. They even have to present to venture capitalists every week. 

“It’s quite intense and very different from what they would experience in a program on campus,” Kristen said. 

Teaching Tech Fluency Vs. Hard Coding Skills

The program emphasized computational thinking: How do you understand how to problem solve in technology environments? 

Students looked at logical ordering and analyzing data, that is, creating solutions with a series of ordered steps. They also learned introductory software engineering, or understanding the systematic application of engineering to that development of an application. Solution design, translating the problem into a collection of parts, is the third area the program focused on. 

Fourth, the program looked at critical assessment, or identifying, classifying, and prioritizing those components in a solution space in the right way. Metacognition is the final tech fluency the program included. How do you engage in higher order reasoning about the process of thinking through and learning about tech itself?

Those were the more technical components. 

“The languages we selected were ones that would enable our students to build a web app pretty quickly,” Kristen said.

Students in the program are context switching. They’re going from class to class for 50-minute blocks each day. That kind of context switching doesn’t enable the focus and immersion that lets you go orders of magnitude deeper on the tech. The bootcamp structure doesn’t enable it.

Kristen and her team had to ask: What do the time and spatial constraints of a bootcamp allow us to do while still covering the same competencies and content that we would cover on campus?

Could Bootcamps Endanger Traditional Degrees?

Some faculty members at Davidson find the program a bit threatening. They don’t expect it to replace a full degree, but they might ask, “Does it threaten my value to students as an instructor if they’re able to get a different kind of value, from another experience that I’m not part of?”

Overall, though, students are going to continue to choose the traditional college experience for reasons other than employment. Students want to be able to get away from home for a period of time. They want to be able to step it up and prove themselves. They want to extend themselves in interesting ways. That’s not something that a bootcamp is set up to do or intended to do. 

“I see the bootcamp and the degree as complementary in many ways,” Kristen said. 

Next-Steps Advice for Adding Hard Skills to a Liberal Arts Curriculum

“Hard skills are just a small piece of the puzzle,” Kristen said. “When I talk to hiring managers or entrepreneurs at startups, folks in the tech industry, what they’re interested in is not a specific skill. They’re interested in the narrative a student can tell about their ability to grapple with a difficult problem.”

Employers want to know that a graduate can think about a problem holistically, design and build something that might address it, and then test that design. They want to know that new team members can validate an idea.

“So I would shy away from traditional classroom settings where you’re just focusing on a hard skill and work more intentionally with employers,” Kristen told us. “Really talk to them about what they want to see when they’re hiring, and create experiences in partnership with them.”

The academic way of thinking about learning doesn’t always share a common language with the employers’ way of thinking about it. That’s why it’s important to create more opportunities for students to engage directly with employers. Taking that approach enables students to grow their networks and demonstrate what they can do beyond what a transcript can show.

“There’s real potential in these partnerships,” Kristen said, “and that’s where I would start. Otherwise, I think the risk is you go down the path of adding a hard skill that becomes quickly irrelevant, or you do it in a way that develops students that maybe nobody really wants to hire.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Kristen Eshleman from Davidson College. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.