Increased demand for math, computer science strains resources
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Increased demand for math, computer science strains resources

Over the last decade, the number of Macalester students majoring in STEM disciplines has risen dramatically — and the college is struggling to keep up.

Since 2007, there has been a 181 percent increase in the number of math majors and an astounding 608 percent increase in the number of computer science majors. Currently, over half of the student body takes Intro to Statistical Modeling before graduating.

The result? Significant strain on the math, statistics and computer science (MSCS) department in desperate need of more professors, more classes and more classrooms.

“In 10 years the number of enrollments in our department has doubled to the point where we teach more than 2000 enrollments per year,” MSCS chair Tom Halverson said. “That’s a little more than an eighth of the student body in one year.”

Considering that, the school is having an extremely difficult time hiring new professors — especially non-tenure track professors — in the department.

“It’s hard to hire in statistics and computer science and applied math right now because there are so many good jobs for PhDs in those fields outside of academics. And other schools are also looking to hire in these areas, so there’s a lot of competition,” Halverson said.

In a December faculty meeting, Danny Kaplan, the department’s DeWitt Wallace Professor, said the school is being outcompeted by “sister schools” for hires in computer science and statistics in particular.

Halverson pointed to Smith College, which is “pouring a whole bunch of money into a data science program,” and Carleton, where the computer science major is the biggest on campus, as examples of “sister schools” that are investing heavily in STEM fields.

Compounding the problem was a series of sudden departures amongst senior faculty members in the math department last year.

Kaplan estimated that the department needs to make nine full-time hires — an impossibility with the current structure of tenure positions. According to Kaplan plans are only in place to make two MSCS faculty additions in the next 18 months.

“The Provost has been very helpful in giving us non-tenure track positions, but it’s hard to move tenure-track positions around,” Halverson said.

That sentiment was echoed by President Brian Rosenberg in an article called “Science Friction” that appeared in the winter addition of Macalester’s alumni magazine Macalester Today.

“Staffing levels can easily lag behind rapid changes in student interest and enrollments. That appears to be the case now, though both the Provost and the affected departments are doing their best to keep up with the unanticipated demand,” Rosenberg wrote.

But a lack of professors is not the only issue affecting the MSCS department. A lack of space is hurting it too. Rosenberg wrote that the school is short on offices, classrooms and laboratories in the Olin-Rice Science Center.

“This building [Olin-Rice] was renovated in the mid-90s [1997] to try to get to about 17 percent of the majors on campus to be located here and now it’s more than 50 percent,” Halverson said.“We’re running out of space.”

A campus space study conducted between 2015 and 2016 confirmed that more space in Olin-Rice is needed. The study found that 48 percent of Macalester students had a major based in the building. There are 255 majors in the MSCS department alone.

The increase in interest in MSCS ­— especially computer science — may be due to several factors. There are a number of jobs for college graduates in STEM fields. Another factor, as mentioned by Halverson, is that more students are interested in having a baseline knowledge in MSCS areas.

“Many students in the social sciencs and humanities are taking math, stats and computer sciences to complement what they’re learning in their fields,” Halverson said. “Those fields are becoming more quantitative.”

Halverson does not believe that eliminating the school’s relatively new Q3 requirement would help alleviate the pressure.

“There aren’t actually that many classes in this department that are Q3s,” Halverson said.

One of the results of the increased interest has been bloated class sizes. According to Kaplan, math classes are 70 percent larger than the average Macalester class. One statistics class last year was so overcrowded, some students were forced to sit on the floor. A computer science class didn’t have enough computers.

Underclassmen, especially first years, are having an increasingly difficult time getting into MSCS classes.

At the pre-winter break faculty meeting, Karen Saxe, a former MSCS department chair who is now on leave, said, “It feels absolutely awful telling students that they can’t minor in our department and talking to students who are transferring because of what is happening.”

“I have two junior friends who also wanted to take [COMP] 124. They were told they couldn’t, but were able to ‘wiggle’ in anyways. That seems to be a popular route towards getting a desired computer science class,” said MSCS major Mack Hartley ’18.

“I know that many sophomore computer science majors at some point were not able to take any computer science classes, which I think anyone would find pretty absurd,” Hartley continued.

But as Halverson pointed out, the students who are hurt the most are the ones who want to take MSCS classes to augment their education.

“If you come here and want to be a computer science major, we try our best to do that,” Halverson said. “The students who are being hurt the most are those who are majoring in something else, but want to pick up a computer science class or statistics class.”

“We love that,” Halverson continued. “We think that’s what Macalester is all about. But we’re having a hard time finding places for those students.”

February 10, 2017

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