Combining Liberal Arts with Computer Science as a Student Motivator

One doesn’t often think of Liberal Arts colleges when looking for computer science programs, but a recent trend by these colleges could make the field more interesting and motivating for students by combining disciplines.  Students who can combine their passion in other fields with a knowledge of coding and computing will have the opportunity for a more personally rewarding career path.

I recently spoke at Career Day for 5th and 6th grade students at my daughter’s school. My goal is always to motivate and explain to students what computer science is and what can they do with it. We have fun and also discuss some of the latest technology trends and news. This year those topics were virtual reality and the encryption debate. To make the talk connect with everyone including non-traditional CS students (largely the girls), I take great pains to point out that computer science is a science of problem solving and designing solutions through creativity and careful reasoning.  I emphasize that it is practiced in teams of talented and motivated people and that is not a solo endeavor (how many people are working on Oculus Rift?). And finally I stress that the greatest opportunity for them is to combine computer science with their passions in other fields like science, engineering, health care, business, etc. This is where they can really stand out and make a difference.  After doing this talk and beginning to think about college for my son currently in high school, I now see that a degree from the typical large engineering school may not necessarily be the best route.  Where can they combine fields to make a more personal and potentially larger impact?

One parent visiting Start Code this week asked me, “If my daughter learns to code, what can she do with it?” This is a great question and I do my best to explain that the end goal of learning computer programming isn’t necessarily to become a full time software developer. Sure, that is one option but the larger value is what you can do with the skills that come with learning to code and again by combining them with other passions. By learning to code now and practicing the skills that it emphasizes (problem solving, computational thinking, creativity, and collaboration with fellow students), students can begin to see future paths that may not have been apparent before.  Again, the power here is combining disciplines.

Liberal Arts colleges are beginning to leverage this by creating their own interdisciplinary programs, even if they do not have a traditional computer science department.  Places like Bates College in Maine are starting new programs including one called “digital and computational studies”.  The name is a bit vague but it will emphasize interdisciplinary studies after students finish foundational courses in programming. Students will be able to choose their own focus including topics such as artificial intelligence, data visualization, big data analysis, or pick a pathway that leads through different departments or majors. Data visualization in a chemistry or biology course is a great example of what could be done.  

“The majority of computing jobs today are not housed solely within the tech industry, More appropriately, every field is now a tech field, and students who can work at the intersection of disciplines will be at an advantage.” - Valerie Barr, Professor of Computer Science

Other liberal arts colleges are following suit with new programs while some have already been doing it for a few years, such as Union College in New York.  Students at Union College can major in CS exclusively, double-major, add a minor, or pursue an interdepartmental major.  Students have combined CS with other majors such as art, philosophy, and psychology, according to one of their professors, Valerie Barr.  “The majority of computing jobs today are not housed solely within the tech industry,” Barr wrote. “More appropriately, every field is now a tech field, and students who can work at the intersection of disciplines will be at an advantage.”

From my own experience at the college level, I was fortunate enough to be able to co-teach a course at Emory University this spring semester. As an assistant-adjunct professor I taught the coding side of the course “Think.Code.Make” with Professor Benn Konnsynski.  This course was offered in the Goizueta Business School and the enrollment for the class was mostly non-CS majors by far and many had done zero coding in the past. We had our own interdisciplinary course at a college not known widely for computer science. I led the class through lessons and projects using Python, Processing, and Java while Benn’s lectures included current trends and topics in technology. For their final project, many students combined their own interests with the coding skills they developed over the semester. This resulted in some very interesting projects and ideas that the students expressed interest in pursuing after the course. 

More details about the various liberal arts programs and schools discussed here can be found in this article at Inside Higher Ed. It’s encouraging to see such programs flourish and hopefully they can not only bring in more students that would not typically pursue this field, but also give them motivating and rewarding paths to follow.