In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., convened a committee of experts from government, industry, and academia to examine undergraduate enrollment trends. Two years later, it issued a 200-page study on the current state of computational science (CS) in higher education that warned, “The leaders of the institutions of higher education that have experienced rapid increases in computer science course enrollments should take deliberate actions to address this trend with a sense of urgency.”
More than 2,600 miles away in Balch Hall, Scripps president Lara Tiedens, along with students, faculty, and staff, had been quietly doing just that. And they were ready to take action.
Filling a Niche, the Scripps Way
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for workers with skills in computation is expected to grow 19 percent by 2026— a rate that will outpace those projected for all other occupations. Mindful of this trend, students across the country from diverse majors are eager to learn CS skills in order to gain a competitive edge in the job market. At Scripps alone, the number of CS majors has almost quadrupled over the past few years.
Scripps students interested in majoring in CS have done so as off-campus majors at Harvey Mudd or Pomona College, as the other three Claremont colleges— Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps— do not have CS departments. This, combined with increased student interest in the field, has resulted in overdemand and overcrowding, and not every student who is interested in learning CS skills has access to training.
During the 2017â€“18 academic year, the Faculty Executive Committee, the curricular policy body of the College, agreed that Scripps needed to do more to meet students’ needs for computational training. Around the same time, President Tiedens was drafting the College’s new strategic plan, which includes a pillar devoted to a renewed emphasis on being an innovative learning organization (ILO). An ILO “theme team” composed of faculty, students, and staff concurred with the faculty committee’s recommendation to strengthen the school’s computational capacity. Understanding that computational skills touch everything from traffic lights to health records to literary and musical archives, the team generated a series of initiatives intended to strengthen Scripps’ ability to train students in those skills.
Yet, as Amy Marcus-Newhall, vice president for academic affairs, dean of faculty, and professor of psychology, explains it, Scripps isn’t looking to start a computer science department but, rather, to infuse computational skills into its established liberal arts curriculum. “Our students are more and more interested in computer science, but they are coming to learn those skills within a humanities background— within the framework of the interdisciplinary humanities core, the arts and letters. They are drawn here because of Scripps’ specific approach to thinking,” she says.
To address that niche, the College is exploring a range of strategies, including hosting visiting faculty, scholars- and professionals-in-residence, lectures, and more on campus.
“Women in tech fields are underrepresented— this is a fact. Much research has gone into understanding why this is the case, and theories range from basic sexism to the learning approaches and teaching methods used in those fields to how power and authority are distributed in society,” explains President Tiedens. Indeed, in 2017, information technology was rated among the worst industries for women in terms of recruitment and retention, with women making up just five percent of senior executives in the business, according to Douglas M. Branson, author of The Future of Tech Is Female.
“Regardless of the cause, we want to take a different approach to solve this,” continues Tiedens. “We want to solve it the Scripps way, which is to recruit faculty from various fields who use the methods of CS and data science within their home disciplines. Our approach is decidedly interdisciplinary, taking seriously the notion that women are more engaged with technology in context, and that our best learning and thinking happens at the intersections of disciplines.”
As if connected by telepathy, some 330 miles north as the crow flies in Mountain View, California, Shinjini Nunna ’16, who majored in CS while at Scripps and is now working as a software engineer at Google, had been vexed by the same questions. “The history of CS and the trends in the tech industry aren’t favorable to women— nationally, the number of women in tech and the number of women CS graduates is actually decreasing,” she says. “But there are ways that we can tailor CS education to women, and a lot of that has to do with breaking down the biases and stereotypes and fears that have prevented women from entering careers in tech, and then demonstrating a real opportunity for women in this field and making sure that they know how much they are needed.”
In 2017, when Nunna was sitting on a panel for students visiting the Googleplex, she met Kim Roberts, who heads up engineering education at the tech giant. “I learned that Robert’s division was beginning to seek out partner colleges and universities for their Applied Computing Series, and I immediately thought that Scripps would be a great fit,” she says. As Nunna tells it, when she broached the subject with Roberts, Scripps was already on the division’s radar due to earlier conversations between representatives at the company and the College’s administration.
Fast forward to 2019: this semester, Scripps launched a course in partnership with Google, spearheaded by Associate Professor of Mathematics Winston Ou. The class, Introduction to Python and Data Analysis, will teach the foundations of computer and data science through hands-on, project-based coursework designed to attract students who might not be planning for careers in tech, but who want to develop the skill set to meet the ever-changing technology demands of the workforce. Scripps is currently one of only eight schools working with Google on the project. There will also be a 10-week machine learning summer intensive led by Google staff and local faculty in summer 2019.
“We are really lucky to be working with Google. First, because on a fundamental level, we wouldn’t be able to do this without them, and second, because they are offering their considerable professional insight,” says Ou, who is teaching the course and the summer intensive.
To prepare the instructors (all of whom are from disciplines outside of CS), Google held a training program in New York last summer modeled on a “flipped classroom” approach. The basic course content was delivered outside of the classroom, via an interactive online textbook, so that instructors could use their class time to tackle specific projects. Google wanted the instructors to experience the same teaching model that their CS pupils will enjoy: a largely self- guided exploration that empowers students to take ownership of their learning through trial and error. “Google’s idea is that people learn best in an atmosphere in which they are completely comfortable— in a setting where there is no shame. One of the ways this mindset is cultivated is by reframing the concept of â€˜failure’ by creating an environment in which being stuck or making mistakes are not viewed negatively, but as crucial components of the process,” Ou continues.
Ou knows, perhaps better than many, the importance of the classroom environment to learning. In his Core III class, Women and Math, students explore the cultural factors that lead to “math phobia” as well as the self-removal of women from many STEM fields. “We have read studies that show how women have higher standards for themselves: Where a female student will get a B in a course and think, â€˜I clearly don’t get this, so I won’t continue pursuing the subject,’ a male student may say, â€˜I did pretty well,’ and go on to the next course. Women cut themselves off from— and out of— certain fields inappropriately,” he says.
“According to the Googlers, CS classes are often discouraging— or are even, because of staffing limitations, designed to be discouraging for many students. We want our course to be encouraging and empowering,” continues Ou. “Instead of just using a program, you will become the person who makes the program. Students will gain an additional, versatile outlet through which they can make concrete their creative ideas.”
According to Professor of Math Chris Towse, who served as a faculty representative during its initiation, the six-week program will be a part internship, part off-campus study opportunity; students will earn academic credit. “Teaching computer science, both the hard skills and computational thinking, to liberal arts students opens up a world of discovery for them. I had a student recently ask me, â€˜I study Spanish history from the Middle Ages. How would computation apply to my area of study?’ I told them, â€˜When you discover a painting or a painted artifact and want to know what’s beneath the paint, you use imaging technology to peer into the layers using the language and tools of computer science.’ We can use these tools to interrogate even humanistic questions, questions about history,” Towse says. “The technology isn’t just about learning a set of skills— learning to code: It enables you to ask different questions, next-level questions.”
Technology and the Liberal Arts
Nationwide, there is a dearth of CS faculty, especially at liberal arts colleges. The stark reality is that people with PhDs in CS can command much higher salaries in industry than they can in academia.
“According to Google, the number of CS PhDs who enter teaching is so small that a liberal arts college would only be able to hire one every 29 years,” says Ou. “So, the Google program was created to get CS classes into schools that don’t have CS faculty and to tap into the talent of students who get weeded out of introductory courses that, of necessity, are commonly designed to restrict the number of majors.”
And at a liberal arts college like Scripps, creative thinking is key. In the quest to find even more opportunities for students to engage in computational thinking, Scripps is also partnering with Davidson College and other schools in an immersive program taking place this summer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Designed specifically for students majoring in the liberal arts, the program will teach computational thinking and software engineering geared toward solving problems within the humanities. “The program is about putting computer science and technology in a societal context and using critical thinking and critique as a mode for considering the role of technology in society,” says President Tiedens.
In order to offer CS training regardless of the shortage of faculty, Scripps is on track to hire a faculty member who holds a PhD in a field other than CS, but who has an interdisciplinary track record of the computational, programming, and analytic expertise necessary to teach introductory computation courses to Scripps students (for an example of what this kind of teaching and scholarship looks like, see “The Science of Virtue” on page 30). This new endowed position was made possible by the Fletcher Jones Foundation Scholar in Computation grant in October 2018, along with a matching donation by Betsy Weinberg Smith ’74. “This is a first step in expanding faculty with computational expertise to teach classes that are in demand by our students,” says Marcus-Newhall.
While these initiatives provide a timely and necessary antidote to the limited CS learning opportunities available to students at Scripps, some wonder how CS fits into a liberal arts curriculum. But as Tiedens explains, “CS and data science may be newer fields, but they are true disciplines with methods and deep intellectual questions with great scholarly work fueling curiosity in the world. These scientists are as much academics as other professors.”
“Computer science and technological skills are not just vocational training skills— their application goes far beyond the workforce,” adds Marcus-Newhall. “They are increasingly necessary to be an educated person in this world. And as it relates to the workforce, the liberal arts background gives our students the analytical skills and perspective to be able to apply tech skills in line with employers’ expectations.”
Research by the labor market analytics firm Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work support these assertions. They recently released a report based on more than 100 million social and professional profiles, applicant resumes, and more than 36 million job postings to understand what liberal arts students learn and what employers want. “There are those who believe that the ‘hard’ skills of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are most critical to the future, and those who believe the uniquely â€˜human’ skills of the liberal arts are the ones that will endure in the face of automation,” the report says. “We say …It is the integration of human and technical skills that will provide the best preparation for the future of work.”
For Ou, workforce applicability is important, but only part of why Scripps should embrace computation. He argues that knowledge for its own sake is one true hallmark of a liberal arts education: “The ability to code is a skill that ultimately everybody will have and, further, will be enriched by having. It will only increase possibilities for our students: like learning another language, CS opens up ways of expressing yourself that would not otherwise exist.”