Suhani Patel | Why we should have a mandatory CIS class at Penn

Dovie Salais

Guest Column | Addressing the advent of artificial intelligence By Suhani Patel 08/30/23 8:42am A packed lecture hall for a Computer and Information Science course. Credit: Joy Lee Prior to Penn, I had never studied computers. I came into my first computer and information science (CIS) lecture feeling intimidated. However, […]


A packed lecture hall for a Computer and Information Science course.
Credit: Joy Lee

Prior to Penn, I had never studied computers. I came into my first computer and information science (CIS) lecture feeling intimidated. However, I enjoyed it and every lecture thereafter. My entry into the world of computer science, albeit late, made learning a seemingly scary subject that much more exciting and mentally enriching. Having used computers at the very basic levels thus far, CIS opened new vistas because now I started thinking about and understanding how things work at the hardware, software, and logical levels – things I was previously impervious to until I initiated my CIS journey at Penn. 

I soon realized the widespread application of computerization across the interdisciplinary landscape of Penn. I witnessed and now understand the influence of computational methods in political science, where algorithms are used to model and predict voting patterns, data analytics is being used to decode public sentiment, and simulations are offering insights into policy impact. Similarly, in English literature, computer science has transformed textual analysis through intricate pattern recognition in authorship. Computer science is used almost everywhere – be it at NASA or your neighborhood grocer.

So, it was even easier for me to figure out that the presence and use of computers would only be amplified manifold in the real world outside of college. Thankfully, this realization dawned on me early enough, helping me appreciate CIS as a subject that is beyond useful in its omnipresence, especially in today’s digital, AI-driven age. Clearly, Penn ought to design a simplified introductory CIS course that every incoming first years can relate to as a beginner and enjoy learning in, irrespective of their chosen major. More importantly, Penn should do all the incoming first-year students a favor by making this simplified CIS beginners’ class a general education requirement.

CIS has had a pivotal role even in fields as esoteric as art and history, in which machine learning models are helping to differentiate between different art periods, authenticate art pieces, or assist in the restoration of historical artifacts. In the realm of anthropology and sociology, social network analysis is being leveraged to elucidate the complexity of human relationships and social phenomena. Even in the areas of environmental science, the power of data modeling is enhancing our capacity to understand and mitigate climate change.

Thanks to these explorations, I grasped the all-pervasive, transformative potential of computer science, which fueled my enthusiasm for and motivated me to choose CIS as my second major, in addition to bioengineering. 

Students can learn and experience the wide variety of CIS applications; they can brainstorm about and appreciate the endless possibilities of computing and coding in any and every subject of their choice. With a simplified CIS class, students will have a strong springboard into computer science, leading to greater ease in grasping more complex topics like artificial intelligence and machine learning. This type of class may even inspire some students to pursue CIS as a minor or major.

In addition to a phenomenal increase in computer science major offerings at universities nationwide, there is a large increase in the number of non-majors taking computing courses. This highlights the obvious fact that computer science is not bound to a single discipline but is of the utmost importance to students majoring in a variety of disciplines – something that many are unaware of.

Students use computers, software, search engines like Google, and make use of AI technologies like Chat-GPT on almost a daily basis. Tech tracks our every move and is becoming increasingly prevalent in our lives. Without us realizing and at times without our consent, information about our personal preferences is constantly being collected. Educating students about modern tech through a simplified beginner CIS course can build their awareness about the benefits and possible pitfalls of such technologies. Tech-aware students understand how and why data is collected, who uses it, and the risks associated with its misuse. Such awareness will protect them from possibly becoming victims of technological abuse and empower them to make the best use of technology throughout their careers.

Knowledge of computer science also provides (internship and) job applicants with an edge, as recruiters want incoming talent to be tech-savvy and equipped with modern computer technology skills. A lack of knowledge in modern computing is, ultimately, a professional disadvantage.

The College’s Quantitative Data Analysis, Wharton’s Science and Technology, and Nursing’s Reasoning, Systems, and Relationships requirements are meant for students to take classes that can help them become tech-savvy in their chosen domains. 

Based on my personal interactions and experiences, CIS is perceived to be extremely difficult and time-consuming at Penn (supplemented by difficulty and workload levels above 3.0 out of 4.0 on Penn Course Review). Since it is so taxing and not mandatory, many students tend to opt for other subject courses. The campus buzz amplifies the feeling that tackling CIS during your first year can be a daunting task, especially for the uninitiated. Although a majority of students realize they ought to take CIS, many end up giving it a cold shoulder, put off by the long waitlists and non-availability of CIS classes for non-majors. The lack of awareness about the subject and perceived relative difficulty of a CIS class, coupled with the dissuading effects of nay-saying peers and upperclassmen, tilts many a first year’s decision away from CIS. The tragedy is that those who need a beginner CIS class the most are the ones who turn away from such a wonderful subject.

Clearly, Penn needs to come up with a CIS course that has simplicity as its core value, designed to introduce first years to the excitement of the digital world. I strongly suggest that Penn make such a CIS course a gen-ed requirement so that every incoming student benefits therefrom. This will ensure that it is all smooth sailing for them all, right from the very start of their working careers.

SUHANI PATEL is a rising Engineering sophomore studying bioengineering and computer science from Vadodara, India. Her email is [email protected]. 

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