From the Chair

Andrew Barto discusses major changes to the Computer Science curriculum

Our faculty just completed a major overhaul of undergraduate degree requirements—with major changes to the Computer Science minor, the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and the introduction of a new Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science. In conjunction with the degree program revisions, we are also introducing a large number of new undergraduate courses, and a new core curriculum for all of our majors. We want to encourage a more diverse student population in our courses, and we hope to achieve this by offering our students more flexibility and a greater range of choices in their course selections. 

What should be part of a core curriculum for anyone who claims to be educated in Computer Science? How much freedom should students have in selecting their electives? What is the best way to prepare students for an increasingly competitive and global marketplace? How should we prepare those students who want to continue on to graduate school? These are some of the questions that sparked passionate debates and some serious soul searching on the part of our faculty. It has been a long haul and a lot of work, but the results reflect a younger and more modern perspective on a field that is still subject to rapid and sometimes unexpected change.

Some agreements were easy, but most required a lot of talking, a lot of give and take, and a lot of careful planning by the department’s curriculum committee. In the end, the faculty stood as one in a remarkable show of unity. We are very proud to announce new requirements for the BS, BA, and CS minor degree programs. All three are currently under review by the University and will not be official until the University formally approves them, but we expect the new degree requirements to take effect on January 1, 2009. All students graduating after 2008 will be able to transition into the new degree requirements, and everyone should find the new requirements far more flexible than our old ones.

Students are legitimately interested in computing and Computer Science for many different reasons, and we want to support students who wish to pursue a variety of different career paths. For some students, Computer Science is a secondary interest. These students will be able to complete a Minor in Computer Science with five CS courses (as opposed to nine for the old Minor).

For students who are committed to Computer Science, the new BS degree moves away from a “one size fits all” model.  It requires six core CS courses plus eight CS electives. Students can complete their electives by selecting one of ten possible specialization tracks depending on their individual interests, or they can retain maximal flexibility by declaring no track. Under the old BS, students were required to complete nine core CS courses, and there were fewer elective options available at the undergraduate level. To support greater freedom of choice in our new BS degree, our faculty members have agreed to offer about 20 new 300- and 400-level CS courses, all reflecting active research activities within the department.

The greatest innovation is in our new BA program. For students who want to combine an interest in Computer Science with an interest in a second discipline, under our proposed new curriculum we will be able to offer a BA degree that recognizes the value of a broad educational experience in the spirit of a traditional liberal arts education. Our BA students will be given maximal flexibility in their choice of CS electives, and in exchange, they will be required to complete what amounts to a minor in one other department. We place no restrictions on the choice of a second department—we just want to see our BA students pursue a secondary interest alongside their primary CS interests. Our BA students will then enter the workplace with a foot in two worlds, and we believe these unique backgrounds will enable them to tackle problems in fundamentally new ways.

Our society is facing problems that were not even on the radar screen as recently as ten years ago. We must prepare the next generation to be maximally flexible in an increasingly unpredictable world, and we think our new BA program is one small step in the right direction.

We are looking forward to preparing a new generation of computer science majors with flexible educational options that are better suited for a world of increasingly challenging problems.  The one-size-fits-all computer science major may have worked 20 years ago, but that was back when Super Mario Brothers was the hottest video game around. Computers will continue to play an increasingly critical role in modern society, and we are committed to supporting multiple pathways to expertise in Computer Science.