Creating Space For Computer Science At Barnard

Fancy rendering of the fancy new Milstein center

Published on Bwog on May 11, 2018

Starting in the next academic year, Barnard is going to have a computer science department, led by a new chair for which a hiring process is well underway. Betsy Ladyzhets talked to Barnard’s Provost, as well as a professor and student involved in CS, to find out more on the impetus for creating this department, the process so far, and what it might look like in the future.

As of this April, there are 84 declared Computer Science majors at Barnard College. Although this may seem like a low number, it is comparable to the numbers of students in Biology, Chemistry, and other similar science departments at Barnard. And the number is growing every year. Yet while bio and chem majors have departments of committed staff members and entire floors of Altschul dedicated to their programs of study, CS majors are lost in a veritable sea of students across the street.

“Starting my freshman year, it felt like there were not a lot of administrators I could talk to for advice about classes and internships,” CS major Surbhi Lohia, BC ’19, told me. Although students entering the CS track have support from professors on both sides of the street, they primarily rely upon older students. The lack of administrative support and tangible locations at Barnard for students to study CS can make an already challenging course of study even more daunting. “It’s very easy to get lost in a major,” Lohia said.

However, Barnard is well on its way to giving its CS majors a home on the west side of Broadway. For several semesters, administrators, professors, and students have been working to create a computer science department at Barnard that will offer students new classes to supplement their coursework at Columbia, a more robust advising system, and a center for the kind of community that makes Barnard academics so valuable. In order to get a sense of how this department has been developing and what its future might look like, I talked to Provost Linda Bell and Mathematics Professor David Bayer.

Barnard administrators first realized the need for a CS department four years ago, when faculty and students were reviewing Barnard’s core curriculum in a process that led to the switch from Nine Ways to Foundations. Students who were part of that review expressed their interest in CS, and their desire for courses, professors, and structures that could advocate for students centered at Barnard.

“It became evident that students really wanted there to be some computer science taught on Barnard’s campus, by Barnard professors,” Provost Bell said. Lohia echoed this sentiment: with a Barnard department, students will not need to “fight with CC students for time in office hours, appointments, and guidance.”

Provost Bell also expressed a connection between the creation of this new department and Foundations’ “Thinking Digitally” requirement. Students reviewing the curriculum felt that thinking digitally and technologically was just as key to success after college as writing skills or thinking critically about social issues, yet Barnard had relatively few courses that would satisfy such a requirement. There are only 22 courses offered in fall 2018 that fulfill “Thinking Digitally,” while other foundations, such as “Thinking Globally,” have over 100 options. Students and faculty alike hope that new CS courses housed at Barnard that can fulfill this requirement, particularly those that are connected to other disciplines, will make CS more accessible and more exciting for non-majors.

After some time spent organizing funding for the new department, Barnard began to search for faculty about two years ago, with a focus on finding a person who will be its inaugural chair. The search committee is made up of Barnard math and physics professors, two Columbia computer science professors, and Barnard students, such as Surbhi Lohia. Students have been in attendance at presentations and lunches with all of the candidates who were considered, sat in on phone calls, and provided feedback more broadly on the position.

“We want someone who the CS dept at Columbia sees as their own,” Prof. Bayer, who chairs the search committee, told me. “A strong researcher who sees this as a remarkable opportunity.” He called this a “dream position,” as the new professor will be able to shape Barnard’s CS department through developing new classes, advising students, and leading initiatives to connect CS with other academic programs.

The standards are high and the search has been long, but it should soon be at a close: Provost Bell told me the administration is “hoping to announce a new chair of computer science, to be here either in the fall of 2018 or the spring of 2019.” This faculty member will begin to offer courses, but more importantly, they will work with students and professors, particularly the math department and Columbia professors who have already been involved, to cement a vision for the new department.

Surbhi Lohia expressed her excitement at the opportunities this new chair will offer for student advising. Current Barnard CS students will continue to center their academic programs at Columbia, but students will be able to use this new professor as a resource for course planning, internships, and more.

“The first semester will be a big learning curve for them, navigating what this Barnard-Columbia CS relationship looks like,” Lohia said. But once that new professor has a good grasp of what CS is like at Barnard, they’ll be able to start helping students navigate CS in both academic and professional contexts.

Although the new Barnard CS courses, major requirements, and other departmental logistics will be largely up to the new chair, everyone I spoke to emphasized a focus on interdisciplinarity. Lohia said that her ideal department would encourage Barnard students to take intro courses at Columbia; Columbia’s core CS classes, such as Intro to Java with Adam Cannon, are already incredible, and students “can and should” take them there. Barnard, meanwhile, should take advantage of its talented faculty in subjects such as math, physics, and biology to create cross-registered courses that will both supplement the basic skills CS students acquire in intro courses and make the discipline of CS accessible to students in those other majors.

“Barnard courses should be enhancing the offerings at Columbia, not substituting them,” Lohia said.

Prof. Bayer agrees with Lohia. Other science departments at Barnard are excited to “mount their own courses that involve programming,” he said, and CS faculty members will help improve existing courses such as Prof. Tim Halpin-Healy’s class on programming in physics.

There are still many uncertainties about the future of this new department, from the new classes to the new professors to the new collaborations between Barnard’s curriculum and Columbia’s existing program. But the excitement surrounding this program is undeniable.

“We’ll make sure to funnel the resources to make this thing succeed on a major level,” Provost Bell said. “To build a computer science department from the ground up, at a women’s college, that is affiliated with one of the best engineering and computer science programs in the country. We see this as the perfect opportunity to build something really great.”

Along with the academic space created by new CS professors and courses, Barnard has created a literal space for computer science in the Milstein Center, which is on track to be completed this summer. The fifth floor of this building is entirely dedicated to CS and math, featuring smart classrooms which Prof. Bayer said would “more seamlessly involve computer content in teaching,” along with officers for professors and lounge spaces where students can meet to study and TAs can hold office hours.

Lohia has toured this new space with other CS students, and she gushed over the ceiling-to-floor windows letting in tons of natural light, the view over Columbia’s campus, and the high-tech facilities of the smart classrooms.

“I have friends who are Barnard TAs for Columbia computer science classes, and they’re super excited to hold office hours in the Milstein Center as opposed to Mudd,” she said. It’s easy to envision the new space becoming a hub for students to study, work together, and hang out outside of their classes, encouraging them to take new CS classes and collaborate on groundbreaking projects.

“It’s been a lot of work, but this, helping out with the new CS department, is probably the best thing I’ll ever do for Barnard,” Prof. Bayer said at the end of our interview. Within a few more semesters, every student at Barnard will be able to take unique courses in crucial digital skills, and they will be able to do so in a space designed for that purpose.

Photo via Barnard website


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