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CS department see eventful year with expansion to Olin, new registration system

The Computer Science (CS) Department has seen key changes implemented in the past year, from its expansion into the newly renovated Olin Hall to the development of The Match, a department-specific registration system designed to alleviate years of trouble with long waitlists. While these changes offer some wiggle room to a department that has seen significant growth over the past decade, there are currently no plans to hire additional tenured faculty, according to Department Chair Jeff Ondich. The Carletonian sat down with Ondich and Student Departmental Assistants (SDAs) Tessa Newman-Heggie ’21 and Ellie Mamantov ’21 to take a look back and reflect on the department’s future trajectory.

The department’s labs and offices moved this fall from their longtime home in the Center for Math and Computing (CMC) to the third floor of Olin. The reopening of Olin in Fall 2020, following a year of substantial renovations, was the final step in the completion of the Integrated Science Center. Olin now houses spaces for the Physics, Psychology and Cognitive Science departments, with Chemistry, Geology and Biology down the hall in adjacent Anderson and Hulings. This setup offers the CS Department a new proximity to the natural and social sciences that was unavailable in the CMC.

Another important development was the introduction of The Match program, which was fully implemented this academic year after a pilot run in Winter 2020. Toward the end of a term, students fill out a form ranking next term’s course offerings from most to least preferred. An algorithm then matches students into a course based on their responses. 

Newman-Heggie stated that the process uses the Gale Shapley algorithm taught in Carleton’s Algorithms class—known for its use in matching medical school students to residencies—and that it was very eye-opening to see real-life applications of theories taught in courses. 

The goal of The Match, according to Mamantov, is to get “more people [to] take more CS classes rather than a small set of people taking a lot of CS classes,” so other students have an equal opportunity to explore CS. Ondich echoed this argument as well, drawing upon the value of a liberal arts education. He argues that The Match cultivates “a good liberal arts impulse” in students to explore other potential fields of interest and question themselves before taking another CS class. 

Another benefit of The Match, according to Mamantov, is that it allows future majors to “take the core classes in a better order than [she] did.” Before the introduction of The Match, she could only take 300 level classes during her sophomore year, which was too early for her to fully understand certain underlying concepts. The Match is focused on upper-level classes, with the first two courses in the CS sequence still proceeding via regular registration.

Despite the presence of waitlist issues that The Match aims to address, the department currently has no plans to hire additional tenured faculty, Ondich said. He shared that “the number of tenure lines of the college as a whole is fixed by the [Board of] Trustees.” If the CS department were to hire more tenured faculty, Ondich said, they would be “taking it away from another department.” He believes this would disrupt the balance of a liberal arts education and that Carleton could become “Carleton College of Biology and Computer Science.” 

Even though the department will not increase its staff in the foreseeable future, they have supported students through expanding the curriculum. Mamantov estimated that now “at least half of [the core courses] are offered every term,” especially CS 111: Introduction to Computer Science and CS 201: Data Structures, since a lot of students want to learn basic CS concepts. 

When Ondich came to the CS department in 1991, he brought with him the goal of building the curriculum around a nice balance between mathematical theory and engineering, which he believes the department is achieving through their course offerings. When he arrived, the department was only about a decade old, having split off from Mathematics in the early 1980’s.

Although tenured faculty are the heart of a department, Mamantov and Newman-Heggie have also both interacted with many different visiting professors during their time at Carleton. Newman-Heggie noted that “their expertise in their research really make up what classes could be taught at Carleton.” She thinks that visiting professors enrich students’ academic experience by offering courses based on their research focuses. As a result, students are exposed to different areas of CS, some of which may be very niche. 

Mamantov agreed with this perspective, adding that visiting professors have “expanded the number of courses offered and the type of courses offered,” and that “once they leave you don’t frequently have those courses taught again.” Mamantov, who aspires to go into a teaching career, said she appreciates the opportunity to “know a really young professor in the beginning of their career [and] learning how they learned to teach.”

Both Newman-Heggie and Mamantov have observed an increased interest in CS from the student body since they arrived at Carleton. Newman-Heggie noted that “more students [are] coming to CS,” with a notable portion of them being double majors since CS is very interdisciplinary and can “transfer into anything.” On the flipside, she also noticed from her experience as an SDA that some students who have shown keen interest in CS are “scared to take Intro [because they have] never programmed before.” 

Adding onto this is the issue of gender representation in CS. Although Newman-Heggie shared that there are “more non-male-identifying students than there have been previously” in the department, work remains to be done. Ondich acknowledged the gender imbalance, adding that even though Carleton’s gender ratio is “better than the national numbers, [we] still were nowhere near” half of the majors being women and gender minorities. 

One of the major goals of the CS department is to “figure out how to be more inclusive [of] a community where everybody gets support they need,” and feels included in the larger community. Ondich revealed the somber truth that “there are very serious problems of isolation and hostility” to people in the technology industry who aren’t white and don’t identify as a man. 

This manifests in higher education in the form of “students driv[ing] other students away” from CS, he said. According to Ondich, the department is trying to “redirect the energies of students [who scare others away] and reach out to the students who [are] driven away.” Some students “just bail on CS because they just feel out of their depth or not welcomed,” Ondich said.

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