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Is CompSci overcrowded? Professors, students share mixed feelings

In Fall 2009, 40 students enrolled in Computer Science 201

The class has more than 430 students this semester, according to Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice of computer science, who teaches the course. The lecture is held in Griffith Family Theater, which has a capacity of 500.

Astrachan said that this surge is manageable and good for the department. 

“If our classes weren’t successful, we wouldn’t continue to grow,” he said. 

Despite these positive outcomes, both professors and students have expressed concern that the expansion of computer science—the most popular major at Duke—may cause issues in the future, from a reduction of individualized attention to difficulty for students to find friends and feel confident in class.

Too many students, not enough classes

The most pressing matter for the department in the coming years is a lack of classes, Astrachan said. Computer science majors do not have much leeway in terms of elective options and must take specific courses for the degree, so the number of students in these courses has greatly increased.  

Bruce Donald, James B. Duke professor of computer science, teaches CS 230: Discrete Math for Computer Science, a required course for the major. He has marveled at the department’s expansion over his tenure, as his CS 230 class originally had only nine students per semester, then grew to 50 and now “regularly” has more than 100. 

“This made it much more difficult to get to know all of the students, although I still do try,” Donald said. 

Accordingly, he has changed his teaching methods to reflect this shift by using larger interfaces, he said, so that everyone can follow along with his lecture.

Professor of computer science Kamesh Munagala has combatted this increase in the number of undergraduate majors by making use of full-time teaching associates, whose responsibilities include “making sure grading happens on time, tracking closely students who are not performing well, scheduling makeup exams and making sure Piazza questions are answered,” he said.

Teaching assistants hold office hours almost every day of the week, Munagala said. Additionally, he has retained small discussion sections, through which students can interact more directly with knowledgeable advisors. 

“In terms of the actual lecture itself, I feel it is just as interactive with a larger class than it was when the class was smaller—in fact, more students interrupt me to ask questions now,” Munagala said.

For Benjamin Lee, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, the benefit of having more course offerings is unclear.

“We do not believe two sections of 90 to 120 qualitatively improves the student experience when compared to one section of 180 to 240,” he said. “The only effect would be to reduce lecture size and possibly increase faculty office hours. Smaller lectures may improve in-class interactions, but many students seem comfortable engaging during class despite the large auditorium.”

Even with two sections, Munagala said, lectures would each have more than 50 students. For now, the department has decided to have one lecture for classes but divide the discussion sections and employ enough TAs to allow each student to get “personalized attention.”

Aditya Paruchuri, a senior majoring in computer science, still values a more intimate classroom setting, especially for introductory courses. 

“I think the department took the right step in diversifying the major requirements a bit, but more needs to be done to ensure students have a high quality experience in introductory courses,” he said.

Building community

Within these larger classes, it can be hard for individuals to find a core group to befriend, senior Alethea Toh said. 

“If a student doesn't know anyone in such courses, it can be very demotivating as it becomes more difficult for him/her to find study partners or join project groups,” Toh said. “This usually happens for several reasons, such as if the majority of the class isn’t in the same grade as you, if you don’t show up to lectures and you don’t get the chance to know your classmates.”

Toh argued that larger class sizes can make it more intimidating and thus challenging for students to speak up during lecture.

“I have found that I am less inclined to speak up or ask questions in large lecture courses,” Toh said. “With such large class sizes, I often feel less engaged to my instructor due to the rather one-way communication dynamic, as compared to seminars which encourage more interaction and discussion.” 

Astrachan said that he does everything in his capacity as the department’s director of undergraduate studies to foster a sense of community, whether that means hosting breakfasts for potential majors or offering opportunities for individual attention. Still, he noted that the level of engagement in terms of office hours has remained constant over the years, as the department encourages students to work hard to find solutions without assistance. 

Paige Bartusiak, a first-year and prospective computer science major, said she was not as intimidated by the size of Astrachan’s class. She does not view the lecture as a space where one would have a need to share opinions or speak as long as that student understands the lecture.

“My first experience with computer science in a class setting was an online AP [course] anyway, so I'm used to learning it semi-independently,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Many professors simply do not have more time to teach courses for undergraduates, as they must run labs at the same time as teaching. Lee explained that faculty who are performing research teach one class per semester—if they were assigned to teach another section of CS 250, for example, they would not be able to teach a graduate-level class or special topics seminar.

“Given the modest benefits and significant opportunity costs, the faculty decided to teach a single section of 250 and mitigate the effects of class size as best we could,” Lee said.

Moving forward

Astrachan acknowledged that the computer science department will have to grapple with higher enrollment in the coming years, and Duke has adequately recognized the value of computer science.

“Computing and CS are far more pervasive in terms of affecting other disciplines, so Duke is making an investment in computer science,” Astrachan said.

Lee echoed this sentiment. He highlighted the relationship between undergraduate studies and advanced research at Duke, which he called “one of the best parts” of the University. 

The computer science department is dedicated to giving students as much backing as necessary in terms of research assistance, he said. He pointed to his own lab as an example, which has hosted 30 undergraduate researchers during his time at Duke.

Astrachan said that he views computer science-based occupations, as compared to those in finance and consulting, as more beneficial for society. 

“There are a lot of positions for those who have a background in CS which aren’t entirely about the bottom line,” he said. 

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