How the Liberal Arts Enhance the Tech Sector

Computer screen in foreground. Student stands in front of large screen in background showing same image.

March 15, 2019
“Computational thinking extends to your ability to be well rounded and think beyond the computer science aspect—beyond the computer programming language—and really think about the human user interaction.”

So says Kate Gibson (’20), a Bachelor of Arts major in Computer Science & Computational Thinking (CSCT) with a biology concentration and a minor in mathematics.

Gibson will be in the first graduating class to have declared CSCT as freshmen, and the major was one of the reasons why she was initially attracted to Gonzaga. She wanted to pursue a degree that would facilitate her ability to pursue multiple interests while still gaining a strong foundation in computer programming, and the differing credit requirements between schools make pursuing dual degrees prohibitive for B.S. majors. Though the B.A. requires fewer mathematics and technical science electives, students are required to choose a concentration (art, biology, communication studies, economics, English, environmental studies, philosophy, sociology, or theatre arts) from which they must take a minimum of 12 credits.

“I didn’t want to commit fully to a B.S. where I wouldn’t be able to explore any other interests,” she says, “and I knew I didn’t want to major in biology because I didn’t want to end up doing research or becoming a nurse or anything medical like that. What really interested me about the B.A. is that I was still getting a computer science degree and learning something new and fascinating, but also still able to explore biology, which is my concentration, and to have a more well-rounded education.”

When offered the opportunity to help develop the new major that would reside in the College of Arts & Sciences, program director Rob Bryant hoped to inspire this very perspective. Before the computer science major moved from the College of Arts & Sciences to the School of Engineering & Applied Science and gained extensive math requirements, the program attracted double majors from a variety of disciplines.

“We used to get double majors in mathematics, or in music—a whole host of different majors. And a lot of students gave us feedback when they got out that it was important for their careers to be able to mix disciplines,” Bryant reflects. “When we moved the program, we lost them.”

“But bringing the B.A. back, you can actually go get another major or another minor in addition to your concentration. We really wanted to keep the credit load at a level in the college so that students have the ability to pursue those other areas. I kind of think that’s the core of what Gonzaga’s about.”

And even though not all CSCT majors pursue multiple disciplines, the addition of strategically selected concentrations makes graduates just as attractive to future employers as those who have pursued more technical degrees. The steady growth of the tech industry is, after all, dictated by the addition of digital components to disciplines across the board, and the liberal arts concentrations contribute additional knowledge and aptitudes.

For Holly Schwartz (‘18), now an application support engineer for a Spokane-area online marketplace retailer, the computational thinking component of her degree has helped her to approach complex problems from various perspectives. “I’ve noticed that engineers view that there is only one solution to each particular problem and that solution cannot be changed, but liberal arts students see that solutions can evolve and change depending on the situation at hand,” she says. “There are situations that need more of an engineering perspective and others that need a liberal arts perspective. My major has allowed me to find a balance between both so that I can use the right perspective for the right situation.”

In her liberal arts classes, Emma Woodburn (’19) has noticed some important distinctions, not just in the presentation style of the course content, but also in her interactions with other students. “There tend to be pre-defined groups in my engineering classes since they have all had the same classes together ever since freshman year. In the College of Arts & Sciences, I’m in classes with people that I’ve never met before. It’s refreshing to get to know other people,” she says. “I also think I benefit from having classes with liberal arts students because they tend to respond to challenges, questions, and situations with a different mentality. Generally, engineering majors just like to get things done, but liberal arts majors really care about the why.”

“I don’t want to live in a world that’s made by computer scientists. We want all these other people with all their other viewpoints to be contributing to the new tools we use.”
Rob Bryant

“People participate more in the liberal arts classes because it’s more of an open group chat in class,” echoes Gibson. “And an obvious difference is the ratio of guys to girls in my classes. I know it’s an engineering class when there are three other girls in the class, but in my liberal arts classes, it’s typically mostly female. It can be weird to be the only girl in your class or only have a couple other people you can relate to.”

Recognizing the necessity of including female perspectives in tech solutions and aspiring to foster a welcoming and supportive ethos in an environment that can be difficult for women, Bryant acknowledges another goal of the B.A. is to attract women to the field of computer science. “We are in really bad shape in terms of male to female ratio, and the tech industry has a poor image right now based on real statistics that women are not finding this an attractive field in which to work.”

Woodburn believes there is a strong community for women in computer science at Gonzaga, with both the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computing clubs available to support female SEAS students.

Gibson, sitting president of the Women in Computing group, agrees. “Here it seems like teachers are really trying to push women to stay in the field, and all the teachers have been very encouraging of their female students to join the club.” But, she says, “One thing I think leads women to leave the program is the fear of failure. With computer science you’re going to fail hundreds of times a day, and women, who I feel like have always been told to be perfect, get so scared to fail. That’s such an integral part of the computer science and every STEM degree; it can be really hard to overcome that fear.”

Ultimately, all CSCT and the Computer Science students are obliged to overcome those fears as they work as teams on their year-long senior design projects. This year, teams made up of students from both degrees are combined for the first time, replicating real-world scenarios where people with diverse personalities and backgrounds interact together to solve problems.

“It’s really a culmination of all the courses they’ve taken, because it involves everything they may have touched on. Not only is it a lot of documentation, but they also write code. It’s fairly big, and pretty incredible,” says Bryant. “That’s where they really learn that when you’re working on a team, things don’t go as smoothly as working alone; you have to deal with these personnel issues in addition to writing code. You may be really focused on getting this thing working, but what really happens is when you start putting code together with your partners and it doesn’t work, then you have to figure out how to get past those issues.”

Woodburn is excited to finish her senior project and move on to the next phase of her life in Hillsboro, Oregon, where she has already secured a position as a Technical Program Manager at Intel. “I’ve had two internships at Intel and each time I told people about my major, they had a lot of follow-up questions. Even though I’ll graduate with a B.A. and enter a technical field, no one has ever viewed my degree as ‘less.’ If anything, people were more intrigued and saw more value in my degree than the traditional B.S. in computer science.”