Data Driven: Scripps Integrates Computer Science Skills into a Liberal Arts Curriculum

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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  2017–18  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.”

Computation  Collaborations

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 ‘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.”