By Chris Karlesky
Computer science at Franklin & Marshall received a boost of energy on Feb. 20 when the College’s faculty approved the creation of a new academic major in computer science.
While F&M has offered a minor in computer science for more than 20 years, the faculty's Educational Policy Committee shepherded the creation of the major to allow students to concentrate in a discipline that is of growing importance in modern society. The program has been designed "to cover the mathematical underpinnings of modern computer science, as well as the theory and practice of computational problem-solving," the committee wrote in its proposal to the full faculty. This includes courses that educate students in the fields of artificial intelligence, networks, computer organization and operating systems.
“Anyone who wants to participate fully in modern society needs a familiarity with the products of computer science," said Arny Feldman, the Carmie L. and Beatrice J. Creitz Professor of Mathematics and chair of the computer science program at F&M. "People with real understanding of the ideas required in the design and production of the various devices we are becoming familiar with will play a significant role in shaping that society."
The process for developing the major began in 2004, when an external review team outlined the steps the College needed to take to offer the major. Associate Professor of Mathematics Wendell Ressler was chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science during the review. “I think the external review process worked very well for computer science,” Ressler said.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Barbara Nimershiem spearheaded the development of the computer science program as chair of the department after Ressler. Nimershiem and other faculty members received guidance from the Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium, an organization of computer scientists from liberal arts schools, in planning the new major.
Computer science includes the study of how computers are organized, how they carry out their operations, how they store and transmit information and how people control and interact with them. Nimershiem sees the program as a perfect fit for the liberal arts environment.
“The idea is that the program doesn’t just train students in computer science,” Nimershiem said. “At a liberal arts college, we want to train students in new ways of thinking.”
Fourteen courses comprise the major in computer science: nine required courses and five electives. Computer science majors will take at least three courses in mathematics. The full requirements are available on the F&M computer science website.
An important milestone in the development of the computer science major was the addition of three full-time faculty members: Assistant Professors of Computer Science Janardhan Iyengar, Jing Hu and Erik Talvitie.
“We have three young faculty members who have helped to build the major from the ground up,” said Feldman, who taught the college’s original course in computer programming in the early 1980s. “We purposely hired three people who have complementary fields of expertise. Each of them has been actively involved in course creation and the construction of the major.”
In addition to research labs for each of the faculty members, the computer science program facilities include a recently remodeled classroom—partially funded by the College's $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2008—with 20 computers, a teaching lab and a workroom with computers where students can work on projects. The faculty members have expert technical support from the College’s Systems Administrator Jason Brooks, who configures and maintains computers and servers, manages software, and ensures students have access to facilities and software.
Feldman credits the Office of the Provost, particularly Provost and Dean of the Faculty Ann Steiner and Alan Caniglia, senior associate dean of the faculty and vice provost for planning and institutional research and professor of economics, for supporting the department as it developed the new major.
Approximately five F&M students graduate with minors in computer science each year. Students have combined the minor with majors in a variety of disciplines, including physics, earth and environment, chemistry and mathematics—and even theater, dance and film.
“It's exciting to see a lot of new students taking an interest in the field,” said George Gallo ’14, who recently declared a major in computer science. “It's a sign that the major will be thriving for years to come.”
Nick Bonaventura ’12, who has taken enough courses in computer science to qualify for the major as a senior, thinks the new major will attract students to F&M. “During my time in the department there have been many times I've heard, ‘This is the first time we are offering this course,’” Bonaventura said. “I suspect that we will be hearing that a lot more now, and with good reason.”