3-2 CS and joint majors

Yesterday, the Math Department met, and we started a discussion of joint majors. This morning, I met with Fred Moore, Physics, who is the advisor for Whitman’s 3-2 Engineering and Computer Science program, to discuss the future of 3-2 CS. 

It’s a popular program, more popular than Grinnell’s. Each year, Fred speaks with about 50 prospective students and about 25 first-year students, yielding about 10-12 second-year students who declare Pre-Engineering or Pre-CS majors.

These four majors (Chem/Pre-Eng, Physics/Pre-Eng, BBMB/Pre-Eng, and Math/Pre-CS) consist of about 3/4 of coursework of the corresponding non-3-2 major, and require the students to successfully complete the 3-2 major requirements at the partner institution. These four majors are planned so that students who opt not to pursue the 3-2 program after all, or who are not admitted by a partner institution, can still complete the corresponding major at Whitman.

Our first topic was how best to advise current 3-2 students. CS 167 is required for all Pre-Engineering majors, and CS 270 for Math/Pre-CS majors. In the fall, I was blindsided by some students who had one last chance to take these courses so they were on track for admission to a partner institution. I admitted them off the waitlist after the regular pre-registration procedure was over. I asked Fred to tell these students to sign up for the waitlist as soon as it opens, stating that they need the course for the 3-2 program, so that I can admit them off the waitlist before open pre-registration begins.

Our main question: What happens to 3-2 CS and the corresponding Math/Pre-CS major as we start Whitman’s CS major?

Fred and I agree that in the long run, Whitman cannot continue to offer 3-2 CS. By analogy, Whitman offers a Physics major. We don’t send students away to study Physics at WUSTL or Columbia. That would send a very strange message about the quality of Whitman’s Physics program. For the same reason, we can’t offer 3-2 CS once Whitman’s CS major is up and running.

For currently matriculated students, we are obligated to support the programs described in the current catalog. Fortunately, the 3-2 Math/CS program explicitly includes CS 270, which will no longer count towards the Math major as of 2016-7. We’ll continue to list 3-2 CS as an option at least until the CS major is in the catalog.

So, then, what happens in the transition? In particular, how do we accurately advertise Whitman’s CS programs to prospective students? Fred suggested the following, which I agree with. We will offer both programs for one year, so that students who read about 3-2 CS in the catalog as prospective students will have the option to actually pursue the program. When the CS major is added to the catalog, Fred will add a note to the 3-2 program description saying that 3-2 CS is deprecated and will no longer be offered the following year. This warns prospective students that they will not be able to pursue 3-2 CS at Whitman in the future.

While adding a new major requires the approval of the faculty, changing a catalog description does not. So this plan will be easy enough to implement.

However, we’re not done yet. The Math/Pre-CS major doesn’t serve 3-2 CS students alone. It’s also the major of choice for students who pursue 3-2 degrees in Operations Research, Financial Engineering, and Math/Engineering. Will we simply rename Math/Pre-CS to Math/Pre-Engineering? Will we design a CS/Pre-Engineering major? Fred suggested the required courses are Intro, Data Structures, Discrete Math, and Prob/Stats—more in line with CS major requirements than Math major requirements, but not entirely. This will be a question for Fred, the Math faculty, and me to work out as the CS major develops.

Doug Hundley, who teaches Operations Research at Whitman, will be a key player in this discussion. Conveniently, he will also be chair of the Math Department next year.

Around all this is a more general question about joint majors.

Since Whitman has a robust program of joint majors, I would like to propose a Math-CS major. The courses will be there to support it. With Andy’s hiring, I’m confident we’ll be able to offer the CS courses that I would expect to find in a joint major: not just Data Structures, Discrete Math, and Algorithms, but also Theory of Computation and AI. Moreover, the upper level electives that Doug offers are on the computational side of Math: Operations Research and Mathematical Modeling.

Beyond this, I’m inspired by my alma mater, Harvey Mudd College. I’ve heard that HMC’s Joint Major in Computer Science and Mathematics attracts some of the best women students, who want a rigorous major and love the ideas in CS, but do not see themselves as programmers. We may look to this joint major as a model.

If approved at the same as the CS major, I’m also hopeful that a joint major might smooth over some of the fluctuations in CS and Math enrollments as the CS major comes online.

At the same time, I think that there will be some thorny questions in designing a joint major—in particular, the role of MATH 260, Introduction to Higher Math, versus CS/MATH 220, Discrete Mathematics and Functional Programming. Either will serve as pre-requisite to upper-level CS theory courses, but that may not be true of upper-level Math courses.

We discussed this very briefly at a Math Department meeting yesterday. In an earlier email to the department, Albert suggested not only considering a Math-CS major, but also perhaps Applied Math or Data Science. This sparked a larger discussion about Math’s joint majors. It seems this discussion will continue over the coming year in parallel with planning the CS major.

I hadn’t planned to write a blog post this morning, but the opportunity presented itself. However, I had blocked out the morning for writing: An assignment, an exam, and an exam study sheet. I have an assignment I’d like to grade and return before said exam. And that is not even considering new course proposals or revisions to the CS Scholarship Guidelines document, both of which need to get to the relevant committees in the next couple of weeks, or my inbox full of emails that require a thoughtful response. Scholarly writing? Not this week.


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