In the last five years, the computer science (CS) department has more than doubled in size, as CS has become the most popular major for Stanford undergraduates. But while the number of students taking computer science classes has increased rapidly, the number of faculty has not, causing serious problems for the department.
Alex Aiken, professor of computer science, explained some of the challenges teachers of computer science are facing.
“There is more stress on the faculty. CS classes are much larger than they were a few years ago and there is no getting around the fact that a larger class is more work to teach well,” said Aiken. “Faculty that had one or two teaching assistants for their course now have five or six and spend significantly more time managing the course staff.”
Computer science professor Eric Roberts described how disproportionate the CS faculty-to-student ratio is when compared to other departments.
“The problem in CS is that two percent of the Stanford faculty are teaching 20 percent of the majors. Only one of those numbers is getting bigger,” said Roberts.
CS professor Mehran Sahami expressed a similar concern.
“I think there is already a problem in that the department is very resource-constrained, we teach a much larger amount of units per faculty member than pretty much any other department on campus. We have to go to great lengths to staff our classes in terms of TAs, and this takes a lot training,” Sahami said.
“Part of it is, we are committed to giving the students a good experience. It would be easier for us to institute enrollment caps and applications to the major. These are easy solutions, but we are trying as hard as we can to avoid taking these paths because we to accommodate as many students as possible,” Sahami added.
This stress has only been compounded by the increase in honor code violations that has accompanied larger intro class sizes in recent years.
According to Aiken, dealing with these problems is among the most popular topics in the CS department today.
“There has been a lot of experimentation with teaching methods and technology,” Aiken said. “This year we are conducting a top-to-bottom review of how the department teaches, with the goal of identifying what changes are needed to maintain or even improve the quality of our programs.”
Despite rumors that the computer science department will start implementing barriers to students wishing to declare a CS major — such as an application, or receiving a certain grade in introductory classes — Roberts insists that the department is adamantly opposed to this happening and will only consider such an option as a last resort.
In addition, Aiken stressed that this growth brings not only challenges, but opportunities for the department as well.
“Rapid growth of any kind always causes problems. At the same time, there is excitement that so many students are interested in computer science both as an intellectual pursuit and as a ‘toolbox’ that be applied to many different real-world problems,” said Aiken.
Sahami said that the solution to these problems should include more faculty members, more lecturers and getting more students involved in teaching.
Eric Yu ’18, CS 106X section leader, noted that many of the measures that have already been put in place have been quite successful.
“I think the department has close to sufficient sections leaders dealing with the large number of students in the CS 106 series. Most of the grading and working with students is done by section leaders but the workload has decreased significantly with the onset of pair programming,” Yu said.
Aiken emphasized that involving students has been critically important in maintaining the success of the CS department.
“The section leader program has allowed us to scale up the introductory classes while maintaining individual feedback on assignments, something that we feel is crucial to getting students off on the right foot in studying computer science. So, while some things have had to change because the courses have grown so large, the changes have been smaller than one might expect,” said Aiken.
When CS surpassed human biology as the most popular major in 2012, its lead was only by 61 students. By autumn 2014, that lead had ballooned to nearly 300 people and continues to grow. This fall, CS also passed human biology as the most popular major for women at Stanford.
According to Sahami, who is currently teaching CS 106A, the subject’s popularity is due to the fact that people are realizing just how valuable computing can be when applied to other fields like biology and economics.
Contact Zachary Brown at zbrown ‘at’ stanford.edu.