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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Computer science department receives $1.6 million grant to hire hard-to-find new faculty members

Four computer science classes were canceled before winter quarter. The cancellation comes after the College of Science and Engineering was awarded a $1.6 million grant in June to hire four new computer science faculty members.

The grant came in response to the continuing growth of the computer science department, which has more than tripled in size over the last five years, said computer science Department Chair Dr. Perry Fizzano.

Last quarter, five computer science classes were canceled due to a shortage in faculty. This quarter, CSCI 101, 102, 202 and 351 were canceled for the same reason.

Two of the four hires are computer science faculty members only. The other two hires are joint computer science and science education faculty.

“Computer science will be the biggest major in the college next year.”

Catherine Clark

The grant money will support the new faculty’s salaries for three years. After that time, the university will take over the costs.

In addition to faculty hired through the grant, the computer science department will bring on another tenure-track faculty member for fall 2017 using money from a decision package received in 2014, said the Dean of the College of Science and Engineering, Catherine Clark.

The department hopes to have two to three new non-tenure-track faculty for fall 2017 as well,  Fizzano said.

With the new hires, the computer science department plans to offer more than 25 extra classes next year.

“Computer science will be the biggest major in the college next year,” Clark said.

Senior computer science major Teddy Rivard is part of the waitlist-heavy major.

As a freshman, Rivard was around 30th on the waitlist for CSCI 141, the first class in the computer science major. Nonetheless, he sat in on the class, taught by Fizzano.

That quarter, Rivard spoke to Fizzano, telling him he would love to take his 141 class next quarter, but was far down on the waitlist. Fizzano told him he would see what he could do about it. Shortly after, a spot opened up and Rivard began his computer science journey.

Still, waitlists would stay with Rivard every step of the way.

The computer science department refers to the first five classes in the major as “the bottleneck.” Those classes are CSCI 141, 145, 241, 247 and 301. Students must complete all five before applying to the major.

“The very worst one was after I made it through four of the five [bottleneck classes], and I had one class left,” Rivard said. “There were two sections of it open and I was 50th on those waitlists.”

Since becoming a computer science major, Rivard has been able to take at least one CSCI class every quarter, although they aren’t always his first choice.

Some quarters he will only take 11 or 13 credits. He has enrolled in mathematics/computer science classes in lieu of straight CSCI. As a senior, he still finds himself on waitlists for desired electives.

“It’s still happening,” Rivard said. “It hasn’t stopped or gotten better.”

But despite the abundance of challenges, Rivard is managing to graduate in four years.

“I think it’s sort of luck and also powering through all of the little obstacles that have gotten in the way,” Rivard said. “[It’s] just being like, ‘You know, I really want to do this.’”

The College of Science and Engineering applied for the grant through the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship in March last year.

Five years ago, 150 students were computer science majors. Today there are nearly 550, said Clark.

“We didn’t have full-time faculty who could take on that load because they had full loads with other courses,” Clark said.

Non-tenure-track faculty were needed to fill those classes. Hiring non-tenure-track instructors is challenging because industry jobs offer higher pay than teaching positions, Fizzano said.

“It’s difficult to find part-time instructors in computer science in Bellingham,” Clark said. “There’s not a deep pool of people that you can draw on.”

Fizzano found tenure-track faculty are easier to hire.

Seniors Nicolas Majeske (left) and Inyoung Cho (right) work on a coding project in the Communications Facility on Monday, Jan. 30. Both Majeske and Cho said they have been set back at least one quarter due to class waitlists. // Photo by Alex Powell

“At the tenure-track level, it’s more of a commitment that they want to be in academics,” Fizzano said. “We do well recruiting those people, but those positions don’t just come up all the time.”

Students of varying class standings have had different experiences with waitlisted classes.

Class standing is determined by credit amount. Freshman have 0-44, sophomores have 45-89, juniors have 90-134 and seniors have 135 or more, according to the Registrar’s Office website.

The CS department instituted a prioritization for freshman and sophomores to enroll in CSCI 141 and 145. Juniors and seniors must wait until freshman and sophomores register before they can.    

As a result of the explosion in the program’s growth, students seeking computer science classes are well acquainted with the waitlist.

JaCe Carter came to Western with 77 credits through the Running Start program. A year later, he decided to take computer science classes. At 122 credits, he had become a junior.

Getting into CSCI 141 was the first hurdle.

“It was a race for anyone who wanted to get in,” Carter said. “I had to wait until three days before the final date of applying for classes, before classes actually started.”

The upperclassmen restriction poses a particular challenge for transfer students, who often come in with junior status.

“That’s a tricky situation,” Fizzano said. “We’re being really honest with transfer students about what the situation is before they come here so nobody is surprised.”

Receiving the grant does not mean the College of Science and Engineering has stopped its search for additional funds.

The college is looking at ways to support hiring more computer science faculty through state funding and through the university itself, Clark said.

“The students can change like a sports car weaves and we change like a freighter turns,” Fizzano said. “Tomorrow, 500 students could sign up for [CSCI] 141, but to be able to hire the number of faculty to teach that would take us a couple years.”

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