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Computer science education evolves at Dickinson College

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Cindy Baur, a second-year apprentice at Dickinson College Farm, accesses FarmData on her phone. Developed by students and faculty at the college, the digital recordkeeping tool allows the farm to track its production.
Cindy Baur, a second-year apprentice at Dickinson College Farm, accesses FarmData on her phone. Developed by students and faculty at the college, the digital recordkeeping tool allows the farm to track its production. - (Photo / )

Grant Braught wanted his computer science students to enjoy more real-world experiences before they hit the job market.

But instead of having them create new software projects for local companies as part of their senior projects, Braught and the computer science department at Dickinson College this past school year tasked seniors to work in existing open-source software projects.

Open source refers to software people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. The Tor browser, for example, free software for enabling anonymous communications, has become a popular open-source project for those looking to shield their browsing habits.

The collaboration with outside software developers on projects in progress will better prepare computer science students for life after graduation, Braught said. When graduates go into job interviews, they will be able to talk about open-source projects they worked on — from how they identified issues or “bugs” to how they helped improve the software.

“The majority of students will go off to consult on software or a startup and join projects and code in progress,” he said. “You have to integrate with a team and work with other people’s code.”

Braught was recently honored by Red Hat, a large tech company that creates open-source enterprise software, for incorporating open-source philosophies, methods and tools into his academic work.

He was one of 21 higher education instructors in the U.S. to receive the recognition. The timing could not have been better for the change as enrollment in the computer science department of the liberal-arts college has been rising over the last few years (see “Major growth”).

“There is just general interest and awareness of computers in all industries,” Braught said. “Computing is showing up everywhere.”

As they adapt to the changes, a growing number of liberal-arts institutions have been adopting interdisciplinary computer science programs to connect with other majors on campus. And the Association for Computing Machinery, which conducts annual surveys of student enrollment at non-doctoral granting departments in computing such as those at liberal-arts colleges, found that institutions expected a 24.7 percent increase in computer science bachelor’s degree production during the 2015-16 academic year.

Dickinson College had been averaging about eight to 12 computer science graduates per year, Braught said. This year the number was 17, he said, noting that there are 24 computer science majors in the sophomore class.

“We’d love to see the program expand,” he said. “But we’re right now we’re at capacity without more faculty and support.”

Among his goals is introducing sophomores and juniors to the kind of open-source education that seniors now get.

Expanding the field

Open-source education at Dickinson College is already having a real-world impact on agriculture.

The Dickinson College Farm, for example, served as the breeding ground for a free web-based record-keeping system called FarmData, which was developed by faculty and students at the Carlisle liberal-arts college.

A prototype version was implemented in 2013 by the farm, which is certified organic and provides food to the campus and surrounding community. The software has since been downloaded by other users more than 2,300 times.

The smartphone-compatible platform is designed to save growers time during busy growing seasons and planning ahead for the next seasons. It can be used by produce farms to keep track of everything from crop plantings and harvesting schedules to labor, fertilizer use, distribution and sales.

FarmData has become a great tool to help predict crop yields for the 50-acre farm at Dickinson, said Matt Steiman, the farm’s assistant manager.

Matt Steiman,left, assistant farm manager of Dickinson College Farm, meets with sophomore Ashir Borah at the Carlisle campus. Borah is the lead student programmer for Animal Data, a program for managing livestock.
Matt Steiman,left, assistant farm manager of Dickinson College Farm, meets with sophomore Ashir Borah at the Carlisle campus. Borah is the lead student programmer for Animal Data, a program for managing livestock. - ()

“We used to take paper records and we had to digitize them if we wanted to do data crunching,” he said. “I often find myself calling up records, certainly for crop planting, to see what was done before.”

Steiman said he’s able to keep track of how many people and how much time it takes to harvest various crops, compare that to units sold and make decisions on harvest costs and return for the future. Growers can quickly assess how to change their crop mix or how many people they need to hire for the upcoming harvest season, he said.

The program also is useful for compliance with organic farm standards and recording pesticide use, he said. The developers partnered with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, an accredited organic certifying agency, to streamline the certification process. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program provided funding to make FarmData available for free public download.

Student employees, graduate apprentices and volunteers are involved in all aspects of food production and research at the college farm. Steiman said FarmData has been built into the culture. “The job isn’t done until you’ve logged your data.”

And Steiman, who helped project developer Tim Wahls, a computer science professor who recently died, said he’s committed to growing FarmData. He is encouraging the department to continue using the project as a teaching tool.

Steiman also is part of a spin-off project called AnimalData, which is still in the testing phase.

AnimalData tracks livestock production records, from birth to slaughter or sale. Other data captured by the system includes pasture moves, periodic and veterinary care and egg production.

Major growth

Enrollment in the computer science program at Dickinson College has nearly tripled since 2011, according to school figures.

There were 21 computer science majors in fall 2011 and 61 in fall 2016.

A lot of the growth has come from among the growing population of international students on campus at the liberal-arts college.

International students make up about 12 percent of the class of 2020, compared to about 8 percent for the class of 2017. Dickinson has nearly 2,400 full-time students on campus.

In fall 2016, 29 international students were computer science majors compared with four in fall 2011.

School officials point to growth in artificial intelligence, app development and a heavy reliance on technology in everyday life as reasons for growing interest in the computer science program.

Dickinson’s international applicant pool also is heavily skewed toward math, science and business fields. Across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, Dickinson had 502 students last fall.

Five years earlier, the school had 364 STEM majors.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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DavidFloyd February 13, 2018 1:30 am

The other AP CS A exam is outdated- they should move from Java to Python in order to facilitate learning concepts over learning the vagaries of a particular language.

It's great to see the expansion of people learning this sort of thing, but I really doubt that we have the teaching capacity to support it just like essaydune or any specialized institutions do.

DavidRussel November 30, 2017 8:54 am

Very interesting article!
The first thing I want to note about the TOR browser. In fact, this software, which allows you to hide all what you saw and what you did on the Internet. But there are many drawbacks:
1) your ISP can understand that you are using TOP. So you have something to hide.
2) data rate.
I'm also interested in the topic of using artificial intelligence in software testing. Technologies absorb more and more spheres of activity medicine, education
and the next will be the software testing. We would like to transfer automated testing to machines as soon as the necessary tools are available for this. This process can surprise us only with the speed of work, but also with the level of coverage. This educational resource has an excellent article about how the technology influences the quality and timing of the algorithms.
I also want to add that, in the field of education, more and more innovative is introduced, of a different direction and significance.
This allows fuller and more adequate to simulate the professional activities of future specialists.