Campus computer science program does not compute

CAMPUS ISSUES: Culture at UC Berkeley promotes computer science without providing adequate resources

When the culture at UC Berkeley simultaneously stresses the importance of a computer science education and heightens GPA requirements for the major, barriers to entry become increasingly difficult to overcome.

More and more students entering UC Berkeley feel pressured to learn basic computer science skills to meet the needs of the postgraduation job market — a notion that the campus and its highly ranked computer science department encourage. In fact, this year, the first introductory class to the major, Computer Science 61A, had to increase its enrollment to 1,400 students in order to accommodate the demand for the class. But the upsurge in enrollment means fewer resources for beginner students, especially in terms of access to teaching assistants and professors.

The computer science department recently changed its requirements for petitioning for admission to the major: Students who entered UC Berkeley before this fall needed a cumulative GPA of 3.0 in the seven lower-division course requirements, whereas students who came in this fall need to complete, specifically, CS 61A, 61B and 70 with a cumulative GPA of 3.3. These are arguably the more difficult “weeder courses” within the prerequisites, and increasing the average required GPA from a B to a B+ makes a real difference for many deserving students hoping to earn a computer science degree. In CS 61A, for example, the past average is a 2.84, or a B-. Holding beginners to such a high standard, especially given the amount of pressure from an increasingly technologically focused society, is a tool to sort students into winners and losers rather than educate them.

We recognize that raising the bar for entry adds credence to the program’s prestige, but the selectivity can hinder students who may not be so sure of their interest or who may become overwhelmed by the hypercompetitive culture. The threat of failure has resulted in major cheating scandals during finals seasons in these classes, as students who cannot figure out the projects turn to code they can find on the Internet or borrow from classmates.

Despite CS 61A being the first class required for the computer science major and minor, many who take the class have prior coding experience. Some took AP Computer Science or previously taught themselves a language, which gave them a huge leg up.

When students lack the resources to prepare for CS classes prior to entering UC Berkeley, they are less likely to gain acceptance or stay in the highly coveted major or minor, leading to a serious lack of equity, which UC Berkeley is failing to address. Students come to campus with completely different backgrounds, and often, their level of preparedness for their classes is tied to their socioeconomic status.

While the rudimentary class CS 10 does exist to attempt to bridge the gap, it teaches a different computer science language from Python for most of the semester, and it does not adequately prepare many students for CS 61A or more advanced classes. The self-paced version of the class, CS 61AS, would be a suitable alternative if it were advertised better and could offer the same access to resources as does the traditional class.

The infrastructure of the campus’s computer science department is not keeping up with the national demand. And for an industry that is changing every day, the lethargy with which UC Berkeley’s academic curriculum moves is ironic. In the meantime, especially given the fact that a new data-analytics breadth requirement may be in the works, the campus needs to increase the accessibility and support of introductory computer science courses.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.