November 7, 2017

Pollack Addresses Increasing Enrollment in Computer Science Classes

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President Martha Pollack answered questions from members of Cornell’s computer science community on her academic interests and vision for the computing and information sciences department on Monday.

With the number of students enrolled in computer science classes increasing every year, members in the audience raised the issue of the lack of small CS classes that encourage greater interaction between professors and students. Assuaging some of these concerns, Pollack said the CIS department has been given the authority to hire more faculty. However, she also acknowledged that this problem is faced by most institutions across the country.

“The problem is everyone wants to do that and I don’t have an easy solution,” Pollack said.

Pollack emphasized the need to capitalize on the relationship between Cornell Tech, Cornell Weill Medical College and the Ithaca campus to become a leader in tackling social problems. When asked about her hopes for the CIS department, Pollack said she hopes to preside over a period in which data science is more heavily utilized and in which problems are viewed from a more socio-technical as opposed to simply technical perspective.

“It doesn’t matter what department I talk to, they are interested in and involved in data science. That is where CIS is leading,” Pollack said.

Pollack also stressed the importance of building digital literacy and computational thinking skills among all students, emphasizing the need to ensure that students build the skills necessary to interpret data.

“The other thing is this way of thinking that I learned in grad school; the ability to look at a big messy problem and say, I’m going to use iterative procedure and make sure the solutions I build are reusable,” Pollack said.

With ethical questions abound, especially with respect to surveillance practices and the commercial use of online data, Pollack also addressed the importance of instilling an understanding of how to think critically about ethical challenges.

“It’s something that comes with practice,” Pollack said. “I think that ethics is incredibly important in the modern world. It gives you that moment of confidence when deciding what to do.”

But Pollack left it up to the CIS faculty to determine if any more classes were needed to address these skills.

“The curriculum is owned by the faculty,” Pollack said.

Pollack also drew on her own experiences to emphasize the need to persevere in an especially competitive field.

“You’ll start writing research papers and they’ll get rejected, including some that you think are your best papers,” Pollack said. “For the longest time I thought it was me, then I became the editor-in-chief of a CS journal. You have to work on something you’re passionate about and have to enjoy it.”

“Learn to communicate across differences. [Listen] to someone who’s had a different experience than you,” Pollack said, ending with a general piece of advice that would benefit students across departments.

The event was organized and moderated by Women in Computing at Cornell, Information Science Student Association, Under-Represented Minorities in Computing, Association for Computer Science Undergraduates.