Computing for Fun and Profit

A growing number of Arts and Sciences students are pursuing a double major in computer science, part of national upward trend in enrollments
students in the computer science lab
The computer science lab in Halligan Hall is open 24 hours a day, and becomes a second home for some students. Photo: Kelvin Ma
April 23, 2013

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Mirroring a national trend, the number of undergraduate computer science majors is growing sharply at Tufts, particularly as more Arts and Sciences students decide to pursue a second major in the subject.

Over the last three years at Tufts, student enrollment in computer science classes has increased by 67 percent. That suggests an even greater interest in the discipline than at many other schools. Last year the number of computer science majors nationally rose 29 percent, and it rose 10 percent the year before that, according to the Computing Research Association. 

The growth speaks to an ongoing resurgence in the field, says Carla Brodley, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science in the School of Engineering. “This is not just a dotcom blip in enrollment,” she says.

At Tufts, students are drawn by an inviting introductory course—and the prospect of securing good jobs after graduation. Three years ago, the department decided to phase out the intro to computer science course for non-majors, and the one for CS majors was reconfigured to be appropriate for students from all academic backgrounds, while maintaining its rigor. 

This year, some 500 students took the class, which fulfills the math distribution requirement for the School of Arts and Sciences. The course turns out to be a gateway class for many of those students, who discover they in fact enjoy computer science and continue on to major or minor in the subject, says Brodley.

While the number of engineering students majoring in computer science has grown only slightly, because enrollments in the school are fairly constant, the number of A&S students majoring and minoring in it has grown steadily. About two-thirds of those in the computer science intro class are A&S students—“that’s the number that has grown over the last five years,” Brodley says.

Of course, there’s the other attraction to computer science. “Our students get really good job offers,” Brodley says. “They can make up to $90,000 to $100,000 straight out of school.” Recent computer science graduates have gone on to work at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn and small startups.

Companies such as Microsoft have sought out Tufts undergrads in recent years. “We’re now a recruiting target for companies that used to not visit us because we were too small,” says Brodley.

The 40-Hour Week

That’s not to say that the road to a computer science degree is easy. Another of the early classes is Comp 40, Machine Structure and Assembly Language Programming. It’s often a make-or-break class. “The joke is that they call it Comp 40 because it’s 40 hours of lab work a week,” says Liz Salowitz, A13, a computer science and Spanish double major. “It’s not quite that high—it’s usually 25 or 30 [hours] a week, but you definitely get close to 40 some weeks.”

“Our students get really good job offers. They can make up to $90,000 to $100,000 straight out of school.”—Carla Brodley

The class often uses paired assignments, where students have to work with partners, “much like they would have to work on teams when out in the world doing CS,” says Brodley.

The computer science lab in Halligan Hall is open 24 hours a day, and becomes a second home. “The kids are often filling the labs late into the night. They like to do their work in the lab where everyone else is,” she says.

Some students didn’t consider computer science as an option until they learned about the Comp 11 intro course. Matt Russell, A13, attended an orientation panel during freshman year, expecting to sign up for an economics class. He says he was drawn to Comp 11 by the enthusiasm of Ben Hescott, an assistant professor of computer science who taught the class at the time.

“I took it because I needed a math credit, and he seemed like a really great professor,” says Russell, a computer science and political science double major. “And it took off from there. I think CS is very great discipline. They give you a kind of giant toolbox of things to work with, and you have to figure out what you can use in the best way.”

Russell already has a job lined up after graduation this spring, with MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center. “I’ll be working on computer security and cybersecurity,” he says. “What’s been really nice at Tufts [is that] I’ve been able to mix my political science and computer science background in computer security, especially cyber policy.”

Salowitz also already has a job—she’ll be a member of the Windows team at Microsoft in Seattle, working on usability experience. Microsoft isn’t entirely new to her; she interned with the company during the summer before her junior year, “a testament to Tufts that Microsoft would take a student right after sophomore year,” she says.

Of course, there are plenty of engineering students majoring in computer science. Marshall Moutenot, E13, came to Tufts having already spent plenty of time coding in high school, and quickly decided on his major here. One of the co-founders of the Tufts Hackathon—a 24-hour extravaganza of coding and designing—he has worked for Microsoft, Mozilla and a startup called Red Star Ventures in Boston in the past four years.

He’s already working part-time in his post-graduation job, with Crashlytics in Kendall Square, a company Twitter bought in January. “It’s about mobile app crash reporting, helping developers pinpoint exactly what’s going wrong with their apps when they crash, pinpointing the exact line of code that caused the problem,” he says. “It’s pretty cool.”

It’s that cool factor that is in large part driving the increase in computer science enrollments, says Brodley. Her suggestion to incoming freshmen? “Try computer science. You might be surprised how much you like it.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu

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