Computer science a surprising gateway to the liberal arts

Students with a background in both could have an edge in the job market

Liberal arts institutions are increasingly adopting interdisciplinary computer science programs to connect with other departments and help students compete in the job market, Carl Straumsheim reports for Inside Higher Ed.  

Computer science is on the rise, with the Computing Research Association calling the growth of undergraduates majoring in the discipline "relentless." And the surge isn't only occurring at historically technology-focused institutions. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)—which conducts annual surveys of enrollments in non-doctoral granting departments like those at liberal arts colleges—found institutions expected a 21.7% increase in computer science bachelor's degree production during the 2014-2015 academic year over the previous year.

Next fall, Bates College in Maine will launch an interdisciplinary digital and computational studies program, with a full major the following year—the first of its kind at the liberal arts college.

Once students complete foundational courses in coding and programming, they will decide how they want to specialize. According to Matthew Auer, dean of faculty and VP of academic affairs, students can then choose between a few options: they might take a "deep dive" into artificial intelligence or big data or they can use their technical skills to navigate other departments or majors, such as using data visualization in a chemistry course. 

"It was super important to us that we have a really strong grounding in the classical computer sciences as we build this program as well as the ability to swing into interdisciplinarity and not have simply a digital humanities focus," says Bates President Clayton Spencer. "I don't think that would be serving our students well."

While Union College's computer science program has existed since the 1970's, in recent years the school has made changes to appeal to a broader range of students. For example, computer science majors can pursue an interdepartmental major that allows them to combine their discipline with subjects such as art, philosophy, and psychology. The department also helps faculty members incorporate computing into courses in other fields.

The value of a computer science education  

Computer science has far-reaching implications, serving as a gateway to other disciplines and helping faculty members bring elements of the field into their own courses.

"The worlds of work and social relationships are all being transformed by digital platforms, computational thinking and the reality of digital connectivity," Spencer says. "It's incredibly important to embed the learning about these platforms and tools in the context of the liberal arts."

Conversely, a liberal arts background can also give students with a computer science degree an edge when applying for jobs in technology. "The majority of computing jobs today are not housed solely within the tech industry," says Valerie Barr, computer science professor and chair of the ACM's Council on Women in Computing. "More appropriately, every field is now a tech field, and students who can work at the intersection of disciplines will be at an advantage."

Challenges in the interdisciplinary model  

Liberal arts institutions such as Baldwin Wallace University are discovering new challenges in bolstering their computer science programs.

Jodi Tims, chair of the department of mathematics and computer science at the university, notes that these programs appeal to a smaller group of prospective students and are also costly to run. However, the biggest hurdle for computer science departments at liberal arts colleges is the allotment of credit hours. Departments at colleges with a narrower core curriculum are able to design a major using more than half of the standard 120 credit hours required for graduation. However, liberal arts colleges don't have the same flexibility, an issue that Baldwin Wallace currently faces.

Therefore, liberal arts colleges must be able to prove the value to students in taking on extra work.

"You have to be very savvy in how you create a curriculum so that students get enough of what they need to be able to sell themselves for that first job," Tims says (Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 2/23). 

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