Willamette aims to expand CS department, offer more student job opportunities
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
Graphic by Mary Wang.
The Willamette Expansion project is a series of articles from the Collegian about the fundamental ways Willamette University is changing as an institution to survive the future. The project aims to highlight these changes, diving into why they are happening and how they affect the Willamette community.
A Committee of Studies made up of faculty from Willamette’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) and Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) aims to strengthen the computer and data science degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. Offering students classes in computer science may help them become competitive applicants when applying for jobs in almost any field as the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, according to Eric Roberts, a visiting Willamette professor involved in the computer and data science program expansion efforts. However, finding qualified applicants who are willing to take professorships at small liberal arts colleges proves difficult when tech giants like Google can offer them jobs that pay two to three times as much money.
“[My] highest order concern is that everyone at Willamette who wants to, should be able to take enough computer and data science courses to use in whatever field they major in and that currently not the case,” said Roberts. Roberts is a world-leading expert in computer science education and knew he wanted to be a university professor when he was five years old. He is the only person in history to win all four of the awards given by professional societies for computer science education—most recently, the SIGCSE Award for Lifetime Service to Computer Science Education in 2018. He came to Willamette to aid in the search for more Computer Science professors and to encourage liberal arts students to pursue classes in computer science. According to him, there simply aren’t enough professors to allow for students of all disciplines to take an introductory computer science course. At Stanford University, where Roberts taught before coming to Willamette, upwards of 90 percent of their students take an introductory Computer Science course.
Willamette is trying to grow its Computer Science faculty by fundraising to supplement salaries and by finding individuals who may not have a traditional computer science background, but still really want to teach students. “We are trying to raise money around the fact that this is a need, especially in a liberal arts setting,” said Jameson Watts, the chair of the Committee of Studies. “It seems wrong to me that all of our computer science and data science graduates come from large universities.” Watts believes that there is something unique and valuable about a liberal arts education that should be combined with technological skills to bring about a diversity of thought in the world.
Roberts agreed with Watts, “Willamette has a very long standing liberal arts history and if we can add technology to that the graduates will be invincible.” Watts said that Willamette has the right set of talent and is set up better than other liberal arts colleges to do this work because of its relationship with three different graduate schools, and the pending merger with PNCA.
Roberts emphasized the importance of teaching basic computer science to students as “most jobs require not just an understanding of computing but some level of programming [as well].” He said that not only do students who lack programming skills miss out on competitive paying jobs, the lack of people who are willing and able to do the work is detrimental to society.
“There are more unfilled jobs in computing than there are jobs in all the other STEM disciplines,” said Roberts, which comes out to an estimated half a million to two million unfilled jobs. According to Roberts, part of the issue is that there are only about 60,000 computer science degrees given out in a year in the US. Meanwhile, every company needs someone to do computing, particularly when it comes to computing security. Additionally, many areas of STEM require computing to conduct their work.
“These skills are the new reading and writing,” said Watts. He believes that students at Willamette can use data science in almost any field of study they pursue, including business, law, government and design. He also believes that WU data scientists hold a unique position in the marketplace as effective communicators who understand how people respond to data as a result of the liberal arts experience. “It’s not just about the models, but it’s about how the models fit into people’s lives,” said Watts, “it is an inherently creative endeavor.”