Interview with Peter Lee

"What we want is to be sure that all students give the program a chance and not give up before realizing the breadth of subjects that computer science encompasses. CS is not just about hacking all day long in an isolated cubicle."

    Peter Lee, Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the Department of Computer Science, deals with the curriculum and structure of the undergraduate program on a daily basis. In recent years, the program has undergone many changes, with a significant focus on women and the interests of the diverse student body. The interest in the growing female population predates the drastic influx of women in the past few years. "Studying the hows and whys of more women is an ongoing process," Lee affirms. "However, they have always been a major focus and their presence has been baked into the program since the beginning."

    The undergraduate program historically draws in a very low percentage of women. Allan Fisher, the former Dean and Lee's predecessor, was responsible for drastic changes made in the interests of gender equality. Fisher, working with several others, created a training program for high school teachers regarding the Computer Science Academic Placement (AP) exam. Several years ago there was a decision to change the language of the exam from Pascal to C++. Teachers from across the country came to CMU to participate in a two-week training program to gear up for the change. One week of the CMU program was devoted to preparation for the new curriculum, and the other week was spent discussing the research done by Fisher working with Jane Margolis. Fisher and Margolis have studied gender issues within the field for years. Over a 3-year period, nearly two hundred and fifty teachers attended their program, almost 20 percent of those preparing students for the AP exam. (Click here to see Allan Fisher's research).

    The program gave the department close ties to high schools nationwide, and Lee found the benefits manifold. "We were able to recruit more students through our new relations, and a good percentage of our female students were directed here through these teachers. It showed the nation that we really cared about women." However, not all women choose or are even given the choice to participate in the AP program. Lack of experience can lead to a major disadvantage in classes, not excluding introductory first-year courses. The sentiment of the Dean, in agreement with Fisher, is that previous experience should not be factored that highly. Since college serves as an institution to prepare students for careers, they should focus on learning at first before refining their skills.

    Following this thought, other factors came under consideration for choosing applicants. Admission policies were changed three years ago, under supervision of the Dean at the time, Raj Reddy. He wanted the department to be known for creating the leaders of the future. Besides earning positions as CEOs of technological companies, he aimed to see graduates becoming head of Nike, director of the Peace Corps, or even President of the United States. In order to achieve his dream, leadership skills took on a more important role in the admission process. "In the admissions office," explains Lee, "a 'prediction factor' is calculated for each applicant. Grades, SAT scores, interviews, and essays are all given weights and scored. We can then determine approximately what the potential QPA of a candidate will be." Last year, about one-third of the three thousand applicants had predicted QPAs above 3.0 and the problem became how to narrow them down. After much discussion, decisions were made based off the potentiality of the student to grow as an individual. They were not judged solely on merits, but rather in context with the rest of the other applicants. Ambition was placed higher than experience, and promising students showing great motivation were admitted. In the future, when technology will reign, people who are active and responsible members of society will likely be incredibly beneficial. Although the new emphasis on leadership was not a direct response to the small numbers of women, it did bring many into the college.

    The curriculum of the department is undergoing restructuring to account for the incoming students different levels of experience. A few changes, mostly to the introductory courses, have already been implemented, but more changes may occur by next fall. Dean Lee itemized the areas within the program that needed review and created faculty committees to address each of these problems. In January, the department will assess the committees' propositions. The distribution of experience throughout the student body covers a large range. Some students have been experimenting with programming since they were four, yet others have scarcely touched a computer before arriving at CMU. The diversity of the entering freshman class was considered when the former classes 15-125, 15-127, and 15-129, were replaced by half-semester minis 15-111, 15-112, and 15-113. The previous introductory courses were not satisfactorily fulfilling their objective to prepare students for the 200 level courses. Also, several students complained of too much overlap between 15-125 and 15-127. "The 200-level courses are incredibly hard," admits Lee. "We realized that the study habits expected and pace of the courses came as a big shock to students coming out of 15-127. We have designed 15-113 to be more in the style of 15-211 to better prepare students for what will be expected of them."

    Other concerns affected 15-129, a pseudo-honors course offered to those with extensive programming experience, which combined the fundamentals of 15-127 with the modern math introduction of 15-151. This course separated the most experienced students from their less advanced peers. By removing those with more knowledge, a major classroom resource vanished. Professors involved with 15-129 in the past are now focusing on 15-151. However, the former popularity of 15-129 may encourage its return. A concern of many freshmen students has been 15-151, and its subsequent course, 15-251, Great Theoretical Ideas of Computer Science. Students with very little to no programming experience have encountered great difficulty with the programming aspects of 15-151. Interest has been shown in making 15-251 a required course for all computer science majors; however, the course, given its current state, would indubitably be impassable for many students. Currently, 21-228, Discrete Mathematics, an allowable substitute for 15-251, is an option offered to majors who are interested in learning the material at a more relaxed pace. The undergraduate advisors are excellent in helping students choose the correct course based on every individual's abilities.

    Traditionally, students have taken 15-211 and 15-251 concurrently. This is cause for concern since both are time consuming and tend to distress students. In the future, these courses may also undergo serious makeovers. Optimally, they should serve as a level ground for all majors to learn from. Dean Lee is currently teaching 15-211, giving him an inside perspective on how students are faring. He is impressed by the way many struggling and frustrated students show great maturity and have the courage to seek help. Seeing initiative being taken motivates the faculty to address the concerns of all students. "It is important to remember that frustration is normal. Unlike most other computer science programs, majors are declared as freshmen and begin work within their major during their first year. Between semesters, students often have the desire to withdraw from the department. Some who transfer elsewhere have good reason - it is hard to predict at 17 what you want to do with your life. As an undergraduate, I changed my major three times, so I understand. What we want is to be sure that all students give the program a chance and not give up before realizing the breadth of subjects that computer science encompasses. CS is not just about hacking all day long in an isolated cubicle."

    Lee feels that some students, disillusioned by the introductory courses, leave the program too soon. He suggests speaking to faculty and advisors, as well as upperclassmen, to ensure that students make the right decision. The transfer rates are not as much of a concern to him as the reasons for transferal. Surprisingly, the statistics for women leaving the department are decreasing percentage-wise. The third semester is typically the most common time to leave the department; so many eyes are watching the sophomore class to see if history repeats this year.

Dean Lee is optimistic about the future. "I hope we're giving all students adequate experiences within the field of computer science so that they can make intelligent decisions about their future. We're trying to study the situation and discover where we can make changes, especially concerning women in the department. We don't believe we have the best yet, but this is an ongoing project with a bright future."

Students interested in the reform of the curriculum or the undergraduate program in general are encouraged to contact Lee (petel@cs.cmu.edu) or Mark Stehlik (mjs@cs.cmu.edu), Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education.

For more information on the gender issues in computer science, read Allan Fisher's research and check out the "Resources" link on this website.