With computer science being in a constant state of evolution, academic programs in this field must be continually updated to reflect the needs of industry if they are going to give students what they need to succeed after college.
While individual courses may be added to account for the changing nature of the discipline and other courses are revised or canceled, often the very time- and labor-intensive process of assessing an entire program holistically does not take place, let alone re-envisioning, restructuring, revamping and updating the curriculum.
In 2016, Kees Leune, PhD, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, and Salvatore Petrilli ’05, EdD, now associate dean for academic operations and general education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Adelphi, decided to embark on a holistic evaluation of the University’s academic computer science program to ensure they were providing students with the best possible education and experience. Together, with the involvement of the entire faculty of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, they set about completely examining, reimagining and restructuring Adelphi’s computer science undergraduate curriculum and each of the majors in the department.
From scrutinizing course content and the relationship of each course to the others to assessing students’ sense of belonging, direction and support, Drs. Leune and Petrilli executed an enormously successful restructuring of the computer science program, which was published as a model case study in The Journal on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics.
Their project had three main goals:
- To elevate and support student success and retention among a diverse student body
- To ensure the program’s long-term viability via alignment of course content with labor market expectations
- To meet the rigorous accreditation standards of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education by incorporating the curricula guidelines set forth by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
“Computer science and other STEM programs typically do not have high retention rates,” said Dr. Leune. “Often this is because students enter a computer science program without a clear understanding of what the program will entail or what they will be able to do with the degree after they graduate.”
Additionally, Drs. Leune and Petrilli were determined to foster a sense of community and collaboration among the students to increase their sense of belonging, particularly among groups typically underrepresented in STEM, such as women and people of color.
Setting the Stage for Success
A major component of the restructuring of the program was the creation of a mandatory 1-credit orientation seminar, which contributed to student success even more than they could have imagined.
The orientation, required in the students’ first semester, covers a vast array of practical and supportive information and experiences. Students learn about the University and departmental commitments to diversity, meet faculty and explore University resources, discuss what they can do with their major, and ultimately learn how to succeed as students and professionals. Team building and collaborative activities foster new relationships, which boost students’ confidence and improve their sense of belonging for an improved overall experience from the start.
“The new orientation seminar increased retention, but it also enabled some students to see—early on—that computer science may not be the right major for them. This, however, is not a bad thing. In many cases, computer science students reach their sophomore or junior year before they decide it’s not the right major for them, but by that time, it’s too late in the game to easily switch majors,” said Dr. Petrilli. “By opening the doors to discussion and exploration, offering them an immersive and honest experience with the faculty, students have a unique opportunity to make an educated decision early in their college experience.”
For example, some students decide to switch from computer science to information systems because that has more of a business and management focus. The information systems program at Adelphi, a joint program of the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business and the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, teaches students how to analyze, design or redesign, and manage information systems and information-based business processes to develop effective data solutions. By supporting the early exploration of the major, students who may have been at risk of dropping out of college altogether, may find a more appropriate major right here at Adelphi.
At the conclusion of each orientation course, the students were invited to participate in an anonymous survey. In response to the question, “Has this seminar changed your feelings toward being a computer science major?” more than 70 percent of the responses indicated that the seminar had changed their feelings toward the major. The majority of students did not want to change their major, but rather changed their perspective toward the computer science major. One student noted, “Before I added the computer science major, I wasn’t very confident that it was something I wanted to do. The seminar gave me more insight on what the major was like and made me more confident in my decision to keep the major.”
When asked, “Has this seminar changed your feelings toward your career goals with a degree in computer science?” nearly 60 percent of respondents said it had—by exciting them about the many subspecialties within the field of computer science.
“It was remarkable to see how even a relatively simple intervention—the orientation seminar—could have such an enormous impact on students within the major, the department and the sense of community,” Dr. Petrilli continued. “It increased group formation, collaboration, a sense of inclusion for all, and set the stage for the program to be a better experience for the students.”
And a better experience equates to greater success.
Adding Flexibility for a Customized Education
Drs. Leune and Petrilli knew that the restructured computer science program would need to strike a balance between instilling practical skills in students who planned to enter the workforce after graduation and developing a robust theoretical foundation for students who planned to continue on to graduate school.
“As we redesigned the program,” said Dr. Leune, “we knew it was important to make sure that students got what they wanted out of their education. This included developing flexible programming, which we achieved by including fewer required courses for the major and offering more elective courses that students can use to create a specialized track or minor in cybersecurity, video game design or scientific computing and/or a second major.
“It is vital that students have a voice in their education,” said Dr. Petrilli. “We encourage them to find their passion and think about what they want to do with it; then we help them design a program and support them in it.”
A Contemporary Model Department
“Prior to the reimagination of the computer science program, Adelphi had a solid computer science department. However, it was one of many of a fairly generic nature,” said Dr. Leune. “Now, students come to us because they know that we offer specific tracks, the opportunity to add minors or double majors and the opportunity for a customized education.”
Over a period of one and a half years, the program was reimagined and restructured to provide both focus and flexibility.
Fall 2017 marked the implementation of the re-envisioned program. Over the next four years, the Adelphi computer science program grew from approximately 10 new students per fall semester to having more than 80 students in each fall semester, as new students enrolled and others switched into the major.
The first cohort of students to complete the new degree program graduated in May 2021. In evaluating the outcomes of the changes to the program, the scholars noted that the number of computer science majors who declared minors had more than doubled (an increase from 9.5 percent to almost 19 percent).
Students in the restructured program took the initiative to form a student chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and established themselves as the go-to organization for all computing-related student activities on campus. The board of the student chapter is formed exclusively by women students, which has a strong positive impact on gender-based diversity. After successfully establishing the chapter, the leadership has further moved to establish an ACM-W (women’s) student chapter, which includes women majoring in computer science, mathematics, chemistry, biology, information systems and physics.
Broad Scope, Major Impact
These innovative changes were not limited to the computer science undergraduate degree program that is described in the paper “Re-Envisioning a Computer Science Curriculum,” co-authored by Drs. Leune and Petrilli. With the participation of faculty from across the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, the entire department participated in the reenvisioning and restructuring. It is now offering five undergraduate degrees and two graduate degrees, all of which were revised or created over the past five years:
- Computer Science: BS, minor, MS, and a 4+1 BS/MS
- Minors in Cybersecurity, Video Game Design or Scientific Computing
- Mathematics: BA and BS majors, minor
- Mathematics/Applied Mathematics and Statistics 4+1 BS/MS
- Statistics: BS, minor
- Statistics and Data Analytics: minor
- Statistics/Applied Mathematics and Data Science 4+1 BS/MS
Dr. Petrilli points out that this project was not a one-time exercise. They are constantly listening to the feedback of students and evaluating the success of the program and its success in meeting students’ needs.
“We offer a truly personalized experience,” Dr. Petrilli adds. “Students can virtually design their own major depending on what their goals are and be assured of unfettered access to faculty, support and resources.”