Computer classes make a campus comeback

If enrollment numbers are any indication, computer science is cool again.

Like most departments at Southern Oregon University, the computer science department suffered losses during the budget cuts last year, but they are already on the upswing, with overall enrollment in classes up 10 percent over last year and nearly half the classes seeing an increase of 45 percent, according to Josie Wilson, dean of the college of arts and sciences.

"We're the comeback kids," said Priscilla Oppenheimer, an adjunct professor and the department's only female instructor. "Our classes are starting to fill up again ... we are attracting a diverse group of students, so you don't have to be a nerd anymore."

The resurgence in computer science at SOU mirrors nationwide trends, said Greg Pleva, chair of the department. Since the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s, the discipline has struggled to attract college students. Now, he says people are realizing there are jobs available outside of the online business world, in varied fields such as video game programming, graphic design, flight simulation and robotics.

"Nowadays, they're talking about the discipline maturing," he said. "People are there because they want to be there."

All entry-level classes at SOU are full, he said, and he expects about 40 students to graduate this year, up from 20 to 25 a few years ago.

Fixing glitches

The additional students did not come early enough or in large enough numbers, however, to protect the computer science department from losing a tenure-track position. Since the retrenchment process, the faculty have been stretched thinner, not able to teach the smaller electives they once could, Pleva said.

Some students said the process created bugs that still need to be worked out.

"I've heard people complain that they don't have the classes when they need it," said senior Damon Fritsche. "But I liked all my classes."

As the fall term was winding down in 2007, junior Jeff McJunkin said some professors seemed to have been "shunted into classes they don't know how to teach and are at best one step ahead of their students."

Although most teachers have been teaching their subject for years, some last-minute shuffling caught some professors by surprise. Professor Dan Wilson, for one, was on sabbatical in the fall, but found himself filling in at the last minute, teaching a class he hasn't taught for five years.

Focus on growth

Rather than just trudge through the retrenchment process &

what Professor Oppenheimer calls the "bunker mentality," the department is taking the opportunity to recreate itself and focus on attracting even more students.

Faculty have found ways to teach new electives, despite the limitations of having a reduced staff.

Greg Pleva used grant money to cover equipment costs for a new robotics class, and Professor Lynn Ackler continues to teach an advanced computer forensics class and hold counter-terrorism crime scene simulations every fall.

"It's difficult to create new courses, and the number of students that are crazy enough to take these classes aren't enough to make a full class, so I do it off the cuff," he said.

The department has also increased it's advertising, including promoting the graduate program in China and Taiwan and reaching out to high school students. Dan Wilson is working with a group of professors to create a computer science curriculum for high school teachers so students are familiar with the science before they get to college, and Professor Dan Harvey will teach a Web development class at North Medford High School this winter, where students can jumpstart earning college credit.

Although the main goal of that class is to dispel myths that computer science is just for nerds and get students interested in the subject, Harvey said, "of course (we would) like some of them to come to SOU."

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