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Roxana Girju and Linguistics undergraduate student interviewed by Chronicle of Higher Education about Illinois’ CS+ Linguistics program

6/5/2018  8:00 am

{This is an adapted version of a story written by Bianca Quilantan and published in the May 20, 2018, edition of the Chronicle for Higher Education}

Photo caption: Morgan Wessel (center) is a sophomore in the combined computer science and linguistics program at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The major was developed in part by Leonard Pitt (left), a computer scientist at Illinois, and Roxana Girju (right), a linguist there.


The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is updating and reinvigorating a number of traditional majors by combining them with computer science. The reasoning is that liberal-arts, arts, and agricultural fields increasingly encompass data analysis that requires computer-science skills.

Illinois saw "incredibly high demand" from employers for what it calls "CS + X" majors, "students whose interest and skills manifest in a different way," says Leonard B. Pitt, associate head of computer science and director of the department’s undergraduate programs. In various disciplines, he says, "computation was becoming naturally embedded in their area." The CS-plus programs have allowed for growth in his department, and the hope is that they’ll also bolster the partner programs. Results so far have been heartening.

Double majors in computer science and another field can be too burdensome for students, even requiring an extra year for an undergraduate degree. Minors aren’t comprehensive enough. The CS-plus programs, he says, are the happy medium, intense but doable for students, and producing graduates who are sought after by employers.

It was in 2010 that the computer-science department began thinking about alternatives for students "who wanted to engage in computer science but didn’t fancy themselves as engineers," Pitt says. It wanted to develop programs for students interested in software applications and computer-assisted problem solving, as opposed to the traditional major’s focus on building software and operating systems.

The anthropology, astronomy, chemistry, and linguistics majors rolled out in 2014 were chosen in part because "there were champions of those areas that were very interested in partnering with us," says Pitt, as well as the "natural links" the fields had with computer science.

The new majors needed to be approved by curriculum committees with faculty from both the computer-science department and the departments it would be cooperating with, as well as the educational-policy committee, the faculty senate, the provost’s office, the Board of Trustees, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Pitt says it was a challenge "getting the faculty to appreciate that there’s a different notion of how computer scientists might engage with the world than doing network programming." The CS-plus majors are housed not in computer science or the College of Engineering, but in the partner departments. That helps brand the new programs in a more liberal-arts way, making the traditionally engineering-heavy major attractive to more students.

In 2013, before the inception of the CS-plus-linguistics major, 58 students were enrolled in linguistics. Four years later, the program has 152 students enrolled, with 69 majoring in CS plus linguistics. The School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics have welcomed its two graduating classes in the past two years, with graduates receiving a bachelor of science degree in computer science and linguistics.

Students in CS-plus majors do not have to take as many physics or chemistry classes as traditional computer-science majors do. The degrees are generally close to half computer-science classes and half classes in the combined field. Illinois wanted to make sure that the students in these programs "don’t get a watered-down computer-science degree along with an X degree," says Pitt. "We want students who will excel in both areas."

The CS-plus majors also seem to be drawing more women into computer science, says Roxana Girju, director of the CS-plus-linguistics program since its start. The percentage of women in the overall computer-science program, including CS-plus majors, rose from 10 percent to more than 25 percent in about four years. The share of women in the freshman class in the College of Engineering rose from 11 percent in 2012 to about 45 percent in 2016.

Morgan Wessel, a CS-plus-linguistics major, chose it because "it basically ties into natural-language processing, so you can use your linguistic knowledge to pair with your computer-science knowledge." The sophomore chose to attend the University of Illinois because it offered the combined majors. The value of such linkages, she says, can be seen in inventions like Apple’s Siri, Google searches, Google Translate, and other applications that use text search and language processing. Wessel’s courses started solely in linguistics, then expanded to computational linguistics and computational morphology — the processing of written and spoken language.

"I think it’s good to have some sort of specialization within computer science because it is so big," she says. "If you go to companies and say, ‘I’m a computer-science major, but I don’t have a specific skill,’ they’re not as excited to hire you."

Over the years, says Girju, the CS-plus programs have worked with employers at companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft to keep their curricula up to speed with changes in the industry. "We’ve realized," she says, "that this kind of combination is much more appealing to these employers than just doing individual degrees and trying to cobble them together."

The demand for computer-science courses has been so high, says Pitt, that students who don’t make it into the selective major try to enroll in the CS-plus programs to get to them. But, he says, the computer-science department is highly selective when it comes to choosing students for the CS-plus programs. "We don’t want to take students who can’t quite do CS and want to do X. We want students who are going to be at the top of both."

Future CS-plus degrees are in various stages of development, but for now the computer-science department is at full capacity. As resources become available, Illinois will grow the CS-plus programs slowly and selectively. "Should future degrees be created," Pitt says, "We are lucky enough to have approved a process that can be streamlined."