Let me first grab your attention by saying that, of the eleven schools currently in the NESCAC, Bates is the sole institution that does not offer its students a degree in computer science. Now obviously that does not constitute an argument of why we should adopt a program of our own, but it is certainly a striking statistic that speaks to the ubiquity of computer science in academia, even at liberal arts colleges.
It may seem counterintuitive to be talking about a liberal arts school offering what seems to be a technical degree. Therefore, it is important to first acknowledge what is meant by “computer science” and then to examine how that definition can fit into a liberal arts community such as our own.
In a paper published by the Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium in 2007, computer science is defined simply as the study of algorithms and data structures, with specific focus given to their syntax, semantics, interaction with computer hardware and real world application. Though seemingly technical, this definition can actually fit neatly within the confines of a traditional liberal arts curriculum. Bates, as with most liberal arts institutions, emphasizes problem solving, analytical skills and communication while avoiding the transient technical skills that may be taught in a pre-professional program.
If we think about these values in the context of a computer science degree, it is not hard to see that the study of algorithms and their application towards effectively processing, analyzing, and communicating of data is a continuation of many of the entrenched values of Bates. I would argue that the logical thinking process born through the study of applied computer science is as essential a tool to a critical thinker as are any of the tools acquired via the study of the humanities. In fact, many of the proposed curricula for liberal arts degrees in computer science take an integrative approach to the subject, with only 40% of the program being attributed to computer science or mathematic specific coursework. This leaves a considerable portion of a student’s time available for the exploration of other subjects and the development of a contextual framework in which the student can apply his/her acquired skills.
The utility of a computer science department at Bates would reach far beyond those students who intend to be majors. The positive impact on non-majors would be vast and could possibly be the greatest benefit of a program. In today’s increasingly computer driven world, the ability to not only understand, but to also interface with and wield the extraordinary power of modern technology is essential. This necessity has prompted prominent technology and industry leaders to promote programming accessibility to not only college students, but to all high school students! If you are reading this and thinking to yourself that your area of study does not require this level of computing, I would encourage you to think again.
As the functionality and accessibility of computer programming is increasing, the areas of academia that are able to utilize these powerful tools are also growing. While the more traditionally technical departments, such as engineering, mathematics and physics, continue to utilize computer science, other areas such as biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, economics and even the arts are turning towards computers to facilitate their work. As the research questions being asked and the topics explored become increasingly more intricate, it is not uncommon for researchers and academics to create their own programs rather than to wait for the mainstream software industry to catch up to their needs.
Currently, Bates does offer two courses related to computer science, though their scheduling could be considered erratic at best. The two options are a short term programming course, offered through the geology department, which aims to teach the fundamentals of the C++ programming language. The other is a mathematics department elective, “Dynamical Systems and Computer Science,” based off of the outdated visual basic language. In either case, the curriculum falls short at providing any in depth study in the field.
In terms of feasibility, the introduction of a computer science department does not seem to be an impossible undertaking. The average NESCAC college (excluding Tufts), employs approximately five faculty in their computer science departments, much less than many of already established departments here at Bates. Additionally, the overlap between the mathematics and physics departments would only strengthen all three programs.
As this year’s class of graduating seniors enter the workforce, it is becoming more common to see computer skills beyond the scope of basic word processing and excel listed as desirable or even necessary. This is increasingly the case for jobs across all disciplines. By not offering its students at least an option to pursue some level of proficiency in computer science, Bates is limiting the potential of its graduates and we are failing to keep pace with our fellow NESCAC schools that we so often compare ourselves to.