Computer science is the invisible technology that enables our everyday lives. From business and education to finance and government, computing is used everywhere, in almost every product and service.
How do we build a computer science major that meets the urgent need for computing skills in a dizzying variety of fields?
This fall, with input from industry and students, the Colorado State University Department of Computer Science launched a new flexible major available to any student wanting to earn a degree in computer science or incorporate computing skills into their education. The revolutionary undergraduate program, years in the making, is the first of its kind in Colorado.
“Our new curriculum is a leap forward,” said Asa Ben-Hur, computer science undergraduate program director. “Concentrations and options provide students the flexibility to align their degree with their interests.”
Specializing in a concentration area
Computer science education traditionally has taken a broad approach. Students learn the basics of software development and a sprinkling of electives, and adapt those skills to specific jobs. Now computing is ubiquitous, and computer science degree programs must accommodate the growing need for specialization.
The demand for specialization complements students’ needs. Students can struggle deciding what they want to do, often finding their interests don’t fit into a narrow, predefined niche. The computer science department chose to introduce appealing concentrations to the major curriculum.
In addition to a general computer science major, students can now choose a customized major in one of five concentration areas: human centered computing (HCC), artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), computing systems, networks and security, and software engineering.
Each concentration is composed of selected courses that prepare students for a specific computer science career path while providing a strong computing foundation. Unlike focus “tracks” offered at other institutions, the new concentration areas appear on official CSU transcripts.
Adding expertise in another field
Computer science is increasingly interdisciplinary, and demand is growing for students with knowledge in computer science plus other fields.
Double majors – outside majors who want to add a second major in computer science – are fans of the new curriculum, recognizing how computer science can distinguish them in any field, from biology and political science to the arts.
The computer science major program has been adapted to allow any CSU minor, including:
- Political science or legal studies – for students who want to become lawyers or policymakers focusing on technology.
- Linguistics and culture – for students interested in natural language processing (NLP), including translation or systems such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa.
- Criminology and criminal justice – for students who want to focus in computer forensics.
- Agricultural business – for students who want to build systems for the agricultural industry, improving modern food production.
- Biomedical sciences – for students who want to develop healthcare applications.
With over 90 minors at CSU the combinations are limitless.
“The buzz is that the new CS requirements make it easier than ever to add a minor, creating ground-breaking, high-demand intersections like bioinformatics, econometrics and climate modeling,” said Elisa Cundiff, computer science academic success coordinator. “We love seeing these intersections, because these students are well prepared to solve the world’s biggest problems.”
Flexibility and exploration are valuable but can students still complete the curriculum in four years? Yes, the program was intentionally designed to allow students to graduate in four years with a major in computer science and a minor of their choosing.
For computer science majors who are interested in a topic but don’t want to minor in it, the new program also offers a wide range of upper division courses, timely new courses such as Ethical Computing Systems, and new technical electives including IDEA: Introduction to Design Thinking.
Opening computer science to everyone
The Department of Computer Science serves all types of students and situations: current and new computer science majors, non-computer science majors, transfer and non-traditional students and online learners.
The new curriculum is open to both existing and new majors. Existing computer science majors can transition to the new curriculum or stay in their current one. New majors learn general computer science and are introduced to the concentrations during their first two years. At the start of their junior year they can select a concentration or stay in the general curriculum.
Support for transfer students has received a boost as part of a massive multi-year plan. CSU is the first university in Colorado to offer GT Pathways (guaranteed transfer) courses in computer science. These courses will transfer and apply to GT Pathways requirements at every public college and university in Colorado.
The new major is also available to CSU Online students through degree completion, giving them the flexibility to take both on-campus and online courses as their schedules dictate.
Doing the math
Algorithms are the foundation of computer science problem solving, but the degree’s math requirements were discouraging students from going into the field. The solution was a group effort.
Thanks to a collaboration with the Department of Mathematics, math requirements have been streamlined and reworked to better match the needs of computer science students. A new computer science-specific calculus series is more relevant to students, and the calculus requirements have been eased. Students can now take a customized single semester calculus class plus a course in linear algebra.
Attracting enthusiastic students
Years of careful consideration and planning went into the new major. It is already paying off. Enthusiastic students from both computer science and other disciplines are eager to participate.
Westin Musser, computer science graduate student and undergraduate alumnus, praises the new program.
“I cannot recommend this new major enough. It’s unique, versatile, rewarding, and practical.” – Westin Musser, computer science student
“When I first heard about the new major, I was blown away,” Musser said. “I love the specialization choices and that students have a tailored, organized map to their degree. It makes it easier to graduate and even encourages students to pursue graduate degrees. I cannot recommend this new major enough. It’s unique, versatile, rewarding, and practical.”
Computer science is about using technology to solve challenging global problems. The new major encourages and supports diverse views, producing better scientists who can create faster, more effective solutions.