Governing Board members and the Microsoft Corporation accelerate Whitman's plans

Whitman faculty, staff, and members of a working group of governing board members, alumni and parents met with faculty from comparable colleges on June 16 to launch planning for an expansion of Whitman’s computer science curriculum.For decades, students and alumni of Whitman have studied computer science at the College, developing their interests and skills into successful careers at large companies including Apple and Microsoft, and small start-ups such as Zulily and Picnik. Many others have launched entrepreneurial endeavors in programming, software development and other technology applications. In today’s world, computational thinking is a personal and professional need of every Whitman graduate.

Historically, classes in computer science at Whitman have been taught primarily by members of the mathematics department who have personal interest or expertise in related areas. Whitman has never employed a full-time faculty member dedicated to this area, and most teaching classes have limited academic background in the discipline or are primarily focused on other academic areas. The lack of opportunity to study computer science in depth at Whitman has resulted in prospective students choosing to go elsewhere, current students lamenting the small number of classes, and alumni wishing they had been able to better develop their interest in computer science as an undergraduate student.

Members of the Governing Boards wanted to help Whitman expand its curriculum in computer science to better meet this growing demand and to help Whitman compete with peer institutions like Grinnell, Colorado College, Carleton and Pomona, all of which have more robust programs in place within their liberal arts curriculum. One endowed position designated to add a faculty member who specializes in computer science was funded in June of 2013, and a search to fill that position will take place in the coming year. Funding for two additional endowed faculty positions is being sought.

Progress toward funding the necessary positions received a significant boost in June when Microsoft Corporation committed to a large grant that will help fund one of the needed faculty positions. A more formal announcement about Microsoft’s commitment will come later this summer. Their grant, combined with gifts from others, will fund the positions that will help Whitman reach its goal of having courses in computer science to serve students in all disciplines who may benefit from enhanced computer literacy.

In the interim, Overseer George Osborne ’66 provided a gift to enable the College to hire a visiting professor who begins work this fall. Dr. Allen Tucker, the founding chair of the computer science program at Bowdoin College, has come out of retirement to serve as the visiting computer science professor in 2014-15. A steering committee comprised of seven faculty members and two staff members will work with Dr. Tucker over the coming year to determine instructional needs, design courses and integrate the program into Whitman’s liberal arts curriculum, creating connections to existing departments and programs. On June 16, faculty from comparable liberal arts colleges (including Bowdoin, Grinnell, Union, Williams, and a faculty member from the University of Washington) met with the committee and other faculty and staff to provide information on how computer science operates at their institutions and provide insight into best practices for Whitman’s transition. A permanent faculty member housed within the mathematics department will be hired for the 2015-16 academic year, and additional positions will be added as funding is available.

Computer science is ideally suited for study within a liberal arts environment, and Whitman seeks to be a technology leader among liberal arts colleges. With these new faculty positions and additions to the curriculum, Professor of Mathematics Albert Schueller indicates: “Students from across campus will now have the opportunity to bring computational thought to bear on their own projects. Faculty without formal training in computer science will now have more students in their departments prepared to use computational methods on problems in their disciplines. Further, current faculty with projects that might involve computation will have colleagues in computer science with whom they can engage in interdisciplinary work.”

Strong problem-solving and critical thinking skills, the ability to draw connections among diverse disciplines and a broad foundation of knowledge have long been hallmarks of a Whitman education. A robust program in computational thinking adds much to these and other skills necessary for success in the 21st century. Our expanded program, made possible by the Now Is the Time Campaign and generous donors, will better serve all students in computer literacy and provide the technological expertise needed to help graduates lead in any field they choose.