As a freshman, McCormick senior Nikhil Pai took the introductory Electronic Engineering and Computer Science programming course (EECS 111) with fewer than 120 other students. Now, the course has tripled in size – and, as an undergraduate, he is a teaching assistant for the class.
Computer science has exploded across all sectors of the economy, from Silicon Valley’s titans of tech to Wall Street and New York’s new media companies. Job-hungry students are streaming into Northwestern’s program faster than McCormick can manage.
“Over my years, I’ve had to fight to get into classes,” Pai says. “You have to talk to the professor and department people and convince them you need to be in the class. There’s a lot of stress getting into classes.”
In the 2007-08 school year, there were 61 computer science majors. Now, introductory classes alone have more than 100 students, and last year the number of majors swelled to 345. That’s just for those who want a full degree. Enrollment in all classes has grown from 710 students in 2007-08 to 3,790 students in 2014-15.
Northwestern is not unique in its growing program. According to the Computing Research Association, the number of new undergraduate majors in U.S. computer science departments rose about 18 percent in 2014.
“Computer science used to be seen as too nerdy of a topic,” says computer science professor Fabian Bustamánte. “I think some of that has gone away. The impact of computer science across the fields has become very noticed.”
High demand for classes and a low supply of resources, often shuts out undergraduate students from basic classes required for their major. Part of the problem has been the limited amount of faculty and enrollment slots, as well as graduate students’ higher registration priority.
To snag a spot, students say they often have to email professors and staff in the EECS department and explain that they need to take the class to graduate. McCormick sophomore Jimmy Song says that he was shut out from two introductory courses in Fall Quarter 2015 because they were full.
“I kind of regret doing computer science here,” Song says. “One of the big reasons is the school doesn’t have a lot of faculty.” However, he does plan on continuing the major.
To accommodate overflowing classes, Northwestern turned to undergraduate TAs – formally called peer mentors – in a rare but not unheard of practice across different schools at NU. Last quarter Pai was one of 18 peer mentors for EECS 111.
In response to overcrowding, the computer science department started to play catch-up. This quarter marks the first time that computer science majors are able to pre-register for classes, allowing them to grab spots before graduate students. Both Horswill and Bustamánte also say that the EECS department will hire more professors in the near future. Kyle Delaney, executive director of Strategic Initiatives and Marketing, confirmed that McCormick will announce some new initiatives for computer science in May, but could not comment further.
Many undergraduates are concerned that changes won’t come in time to help them.
“It might be great if they hire 20 professors in four years, but I’ll have graduated by then,” Weinberg junior Haley De Boom says.
Part of the problem is a lack of doctoral candidates, Bustamánte says. Earning a Ph.D. in computer science takes four to six years, and the number of Ph.D.s hasn’t caught up to the recent boom.
Students hope Northwestern will be able to build a program fast enough to accommodate growing interest, including Alaina Kafkes, a Weinberg junior studying computer science.
“We want to create an infrastructure to hold more students and not deter them from staying in the department.”