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Photo via Whitman.
Photo via Whitman.

Students at Whitman College will soon be able to earn a degree in computer science.

The Walla Walla, Wash. liberal arts school has raised more than $8 million in endowments — including a grant from Microsoft — to help launch a new computer science program.

Photo via Shutterstock.
Photo via Shutterstock.

The money will help Whitman hire three professors, remodel classrooms, and fund other resources needed for the new offering.

Specific details for the program are still being worked out, but a freshman starting school this fall could “possibly be able to graduate with a computer science degree,” said Albert Schueller, a Whitman math professor who’s helping launch the program.

Whitman has taught computer science courses for years, but never had a formal offering. The only way to obtain a computer science degree was to study mathematics-related coursework for three years at Whitman, and then do another two years of education at a partnering school.

About a decade ago, the school expressed interest in developing a legitimate program, but did not have the proper resources. But two years ago, a group of donors — including Microsoft board member and former VoiceStream Wireless CEO John Stanton — came forward with interest in putting up money to support a computer science program. Now, that vision is coming to fruition at the 1,400-student college.

Albert
Albert Schueller.

“As we see how computation has literally pervaded every aspect of our lives over last 20, 30 years, it seems reasonable that computational thinking and computer science in particular should be a part of a person’s liberal education,” Schueller said. “Someone who wants to be liberally educated should understand how computation fits into all aspects of our lives.”

Schueller has worked with donors and other faculty for the past 18 months to lay the groundwork for the program. Whitman already hired Janet Davis, a computer science professor from Grinnell — and a University of Washington Ph.D alum — who will start teaching in Walla Walla this fall. By the 2016-17 academic year, the college plans to bring on the two other professors.

Schueller noted that Whitman is “late to the game,” in comparison to the other top liberal arts schools in the country, most of which have established computer science programs. But Whitman isn’t offering this “just because everyone else is doing it,” he noted.

“It’s more grounded in fact that we had these resources and we do believe that computer science belongs in the liberal arts context,” Schueller said.

He added that Whitman is still figuring out what course offerings will look like and which potential interdisciplinary majors like computational physics, for example, might be offered.

Regardless, Schueller is expecting high demand. Over the past ten years, he’s taught a grand total of 25 students in three data structures classes. But in just the past year, there have been 30 students taking the same course.

“We’re already seeing the demand spike,” he said.

Schueller noted that if demand for computer science degrees exceeds a certain capacity, Whitman may need to place a cap on the program — this is what’s happening at several other universities around the country. Otherwise, Whitman students are free to major in any program they want, he said.

The computer science program at Whitman comes at a time when business and political leaders in the state are looking to do more to fill the insatiable appetite that companies have for computer science grads. The University of Washington — the largest in the state — can only plug a small hole, even though it is looking to expand its computer science and engineering program with a new building.

Last year, the UW granted 315 computer science degrees, a record number but but well below the needs of industry in the state.

According to a 2013 study by the Technology Alliance, Washington state ranks in the bottom half of peer states when it comes to production of degrees in the fields of science and engineering.

“Washington ranked last among our peers in both total master’s degree production and science and engineering master’s degree production in 2011,” the study said. “Our PhD production in science and engineering fields placed us 11th out of 12 peers and 35th in the nation – one place lower compared to a decade earlier. There is a deep disconnect between our competitiveness in measures of educated, innovative workforce and the capacity to produce such talent in our own higher education system.”

Editor’s note: GeekWire chairman Jonathan Sposato is part of the steering committee for the new computer science program.  Others on the committee include University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska; Microsoft board member John Stanton; former ADIC CEO Peter van Oppen; and former Microsoft employee Marty Smith.

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