We need better PR

Last night we had our first-ever departmental reception just for intro students.  As a department, we’ve been talking about various ways to improve the culture—heck, to create a culture in the first place—and thought this would be a good way to get students hooked into the department early.  It was a great reception, with a great turnout, and I got the chance to talk to a number of the women students there.

What struck me the most, after talking to these students, is that we’re doing a pretty shitty job of advertising ourselves!

No one there really had any idea of how exciting CS is, nor how extensive it is, nor all the cool ways it can be applied.  Or, for that matter, what CS is, really, beyond programming.  Many of the students said that it had never even crossed their mind before to take a CS class.  I talked with many of them about my own research, some other cool things that I’ve been reading about in the field, even the classes I’m teaching.  The reaction was universally “wow, that’s so interesting!  I had no idea that could be part of CS!”  And many of them are excited about their current class, too, and from what I can gather, surprised about all they are learning.

Why are we not capitalizing on this?  Why are we not getting out the word on all the neat things we’re researching, the cool classes we’re offering, all the reasons why everyone should take at least one computer science course?  Why are people lining up to take Psychology and English, but not CS?

Maybe it’s because people know, or at least think they know, what English and Psychology are all about.  CS….well, we have all these nice definitions, but they all have words like “computational thinking” and “algorithms” and yeah, that does explain what we’re doing, but are “algorithms” as catchy as “learning about the mind?”  Probably  not, to most people.  Do most people know what computer scientists do?  I’m guessing not.  More specifically, does anyone know what we do beyond teach some “nerdy” classes?  Probably not.

So how do we capture our students’ attention, and their imagination?  Getting more visible on campus?  Taking a hard look at our catalog descriptions (we’ve been doing that)?  Educating the faculty?  I’m not sure.  But someday, I’d love to hear students talking about CS as a discipline the same way they talk about, say, Psychology and English now.