Engineering and Computer Science: Time to Separate?

By Basken, Paul | ASEE Prism, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Engineering and Computer Science: Time to Separate?


Basken, Paul, ASEE Prism


When chemical engineering major Katherine Steinberg struggled with a lab report that involved complicated graphing, her friends in computer science suggested she try the programming language known as R. "Shoot," she told them. "I don't know how to do that." It was one among many instances where Steinberg, now beginning her senior year at Case Western Reserve University, wished she had learned more computer skills. She's not alone. Students nationwide, in a variety of majors, have for years been recognizing the need for expanded computer expertise in their classwork and in the post-graduation marketplace. Many are adding it to their already burdensome course loads. The result is surging demand that poses major academic and organizational challenges for universities. Among them is the question of splitting computer science away from engineering.

The number of computer science majors at major North American universities has more than tripled since 2006, and interest in computer training among non-majors appears to be growing even faster, according to last year's annual university survey by the Computing Research Association (CRA). The reason isn't hard to see. College graduates who don't have sufficient computing expertise will have more trouble getting hired and face lower salaries when they do, according to a study this year by IBM, Burning Glass Technologies, and the Business-Higher Education Forum.

"Employers tell us they want certain skill sets," particularly in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences, says Darryll Pines, dean of engineering at the University of Maryland-College Park. All engineering and computer science students should have "some fundamental instruction" in those skills, he says. "We at Maryland have created a minor in AI/ ML for students to get these skills and tools going forward."

Faculty Shortage

If the students can find the time for extra computer courses, their universities and their teachers often can't supply them. The CRA survey found that the number of tenure-track faculty is increasing only about a tenth as fast as the number of computer-science majors, with more than a third of the institutions already acknowledging a resulting drop in student performance.

It's a supply-and-demand dilemma with no simple solution: Students are flocking to computer courses because of the high pay and plentiful job options, and those same benefits make it hard for colleges to attract and retain faculty with valuable computer skills. "We have to actually admit this is a real problem," Charles Isbell, executive associate dean of Georgia Tech's College of Computing, told the National Science Board in July in a panel discussion on artificial intelligence. "We've had a 30 percent reduction in computer science Ph.D.'s who have gone into academia. They're all going into industry"

Universities are trying various solutions, including developing new methods for teaching larger groups, offering computer engineering minors and optional courses, reassessing computing-related degree and job classifications, charging more for high-demand majors, and developing private partnerships.

One potential remedy with support among some academic and industry experts seems to be especially difficult for many universities to pull off: organizational restructuring. The idea is that computing has grown so fast in so many parts of universities that institutions could achieve much greater efficiencies-and make themselves more attractive to students, faculty, and funders-by combining all, or nearly all, of their computer-related educational content into a single school.

That argument was put forward recently by two major studies of how to handle the boom in demand for computer science. One, soon to be published by the CRA, argues that computer science has grown markedly distinct from its traditional home in colleges of engineering, science, or liberal arts, especially in its wide applicability and value to other majors. …

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