Computer science education evolves at Dickinson College
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.
“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.
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.