New Computer Science Major: Liberal Arts for Tomorrow

Laurie Heyer with students
Kimbrough Professor of Mathematics and Chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Laurie Heyer, standing, says students have embraced the new computer science major with enthusiasm. Heyer is co-author, with Prof. Malcolm Campbell, of the textbook Genomics, Proteomics & Bioinformatics.

Laurie Heyer, chair of mathematics and computer science, was met by students eager to sign up for the college's new computer science major the morning after it had been approved at a faculty meeting. Six students declared the major before the celebratory doughnuts disappeared from the department's hall table, and three more joined them in the days that followed. Another wave is certain by the middle of spring semester, Heyer said.

The demand for the new major testifies to the value those studies hold in the rapidly changing, global economy that graduates will enter. Computer science, though, isn't typically associated with a liberal arts college, and the degree's debut underscores Davidson's efforts to reimagine the liberal arts experience.

"The study and application of computer science today is a natural fit with the transdisciplinary approach at Davidson," Heyer said.

Davidson students receive a deep and rich education in their chosen field of study, but their path to learning isn't bound by traditional disciplines. They also gain broad, transferable skills, such as communicating, tackling complex problems, analyzing complicated data and making decisions with imperfect information.

Micah Brown '16, a recent graduate and former research student for Heyer, is a new software development engineer at Amazon, in Seattle.

"One thing I noticed in the interview process was that, because of my liberal arts background, I was able to think about the problems that were presented to me in ways that set me apart from some of the other candidates," Brown said. "I joined a team that already had about a year on their project. Being able to come into it with a different mindset was really valuable to them."

Ross Kruse '17 was among the first to sign up for the new major.

"The demand for computer science stretches beyond majors," said Kruse, who earlier studied computer science as a math major in Budapest. "Students recognize that a base-level understanding of computer science can do a lot to jump-start their career, no matter their field."

Approval of the computer science major, in some ways, formalized ongoing efforts at Davidson to build broader skills toward solving big problems in the world. The computer science, English, biology and economics departments, for example, are collaborating on a planned Dec. 7 digital project showcase. One set of co-presenters, Tommy Rhodes '17 and Leslie Alvarado '17, will launch their virtual reality project that places participants in settings and situations faced by people of different genders and skin colors.

More than 20 students have collaborated with faculty on computer science research opportunities in the past three years, often earning a stipend or course credit while soaking up knowledge and experience. Several students have been awarded Davidson Research Initiative (DRI) fellowships, which are designed to support summer research that often extends throughout the year. For instance, Andrew Wu '18 used machine learning to develop an improved solver for a famous logic problem called 3-SAT, and Andy Baay '17 implemented an algorithm for ranking search results from a glycan database used by scientists around the world.

Raghu Ramanujan with students
Raghu Ramanujan (center) has been instrumental in designing the computer science major, emphasizing the breadth and depth of the subject matter as well as access to it.

Others have worked on Project PRONTO (PRoductive ONline TOols), to help streamline a variety of digital tasks for campus and community partners.

Raghu Ramanujan, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, has been instrumental in designing the new major at Davidson since he arrived four years ago. He said the emphasis on both breadth and depth in the new major creates the added benefit of helping foster inclusivity and access. That's especially important in computer science.

"Silicon Valley [employment] statistics show about 80 percent white or Asian males. These are the guys designing your Uber app and self-driving cars and dating apps and search engines," Ramanujan said. "The products you design are going to be used by people who are not like you. If you don't get the diverse input to begin with, there are going to be blind spots in your products."

Ramanujan, who specializes in machine learning and artificial intelligence, spoke by Skype from London where he was working as a consultant for Twizoo, a startup app that surfs reviews on social media, classifies them and displays those that are relevant, a sort of added layer of intelligence on top of Twitter. Its co-founder and CEO is Madeline Parra '09.

The Davidson College Tech Impact Fellowship was recently created by Whitney White '08 to encourage Davidson women and students of color to explore interests in computer science through hands-on learning culminating in a real-world project under the guidance of an alumni mentor. The fellowship carries a $5,000 stipend.

Valerie Barr, professor of computer science at Union College and chair of the Association for Computing Machinery Council on Women in Computing, emphasized the logic of a liberal arts college taking on a leadership role in computer science.

"We are already committed to the duality of breadth across the liberal arts and depth in the major," Barr said. "And along comes computer science, which can connect to so many fields that it demands that we show students those connections early and often."

John Syme