SIGCSE Committee on Computing Education in Liberal Arts Colleges

Charter Approved: December 17, 2016
Facilitators: Doug Baldwin, SUNY Geneseo, Alyce Brady, Kalamazoo College, Andrea Lawrence, Spelman College, Henry Walker, Grinnell College


Computing programs at liberal arts colleges differ in a number of ways from programs at other institutions. This SIGCSE committee focuses on faculty perspectives and needs within a liberal arts context.

Toward an Understanding of the Term, "Liberal Arts College"

Although the definition of the phrase "liberal arts college" is expected to evolve through committee discussions, an initial understanding reflects a post-secondary institution that emphasizes education for the breadth of graduates' career, civic, and personal lives, in contrast to institutions that focus on more narrow preparation (e.g., for a specific profession).

This definition describes a spectrum of higher education institutions, not a dichotomy. Nonetheless, the definition does highlight certain kinds of institution and views of education:

  • Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education (graduate education invariably concentrates on a single area).
  • Although many liberal arts colleges are the undergraduate colleges of major universities (e.g., in the Ivy League or at flagship campuses of many state systems), independent liberal arts colleges are generally small, enrolling at most a few thousand students.
  • Society in general, and some members of the liberal arts community itself, consider programs in the humanities, arts, and sciences to be central to (and in some views defining of) the liberal arts. While liberal arts colleges may offer such "professional" programs as engineering, nursing, business, etc., those subjects are traditionally not seen as part of the liberal arts canon.
  • Graduation requirements at liberal arts colleges typically involve small majors relative to the number of general education and elective courses. A stereotypical liberal arts undergraduate program devotes perhaps 35-45% of a student's courses to a major and supporting courses, while 55-65% of the courses are in areas not directly related to the major.
  • It is common for students at liberal arts colleges to have minors or double majors.

Characteristics of Computing Programs at Liberal Arts Colleges

These characteristics of liberal arts colleges have a significant impact on computing programs:

  • Liberal arts computing programs typically require students to take only a small total number of computing courses. It is easy for students to use the consequent "free" space in their course schedules to pursue a minor or second major that applies their computing knowledge.
  • Liberal arts computing programs are less likely than engineering-based programs to require pre-professional experiences such as internships, and may instead put more effort into helping students communicate orally and in writing.
  • Other topics emphasized by liberal arts computing programs include algorithmic thinking, analysis, fundamental principles, and problem-solving methodology; specific languages, architectures, and techniques are treated as illustrations of these higher-level principles.
  • ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation is generally irrelevant for liberal arts colleges, which focus on accreditation of the college by regional accrediting bodies rather than on accreditation of specific departments. Department-level external assessment often involves periodically bringing in review committees of faculty from peer institutions to evaluate program quality.
  • Administrations at liberal arts colleges may see computing as primarily a professional subject, and thus not central to the institution's mission. Faculty in computing programs may therefore feel an on-going if not necessarily explicit need to justify their presence in the institution.
  • Departments in all fields at liberal arts colleges usually have relatively small faculties; in the case of computing, 3-10 professors with primary responsibility for teaching the subject is typical.
  • When the number of faculty is especially small or where there are good disciplinary reasons, some liberal arts computing programs are housed in joint departments (e.g., mathematics and computer science), although most migrate to separate departments when the number of CS faculty permits.

Groups of Liberal Arts Faculty

Since computing programs at liberal arts colleges often are small, and since schools may be spread geographically, several small-scale organizations have developed for faculty at these schools. In each case, an important objective has been to promote discussion, consider alternatives for curricula and pedagogy, identify common problems, and share/brainstorm possible approaches. In order to encourage substantive investigation and conversation, these groups have been reasonably small.

  • The distinctive situation of computing programs in liberal arts colleges led to the formation of a Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium (LACS) in 1984. This group has been continuously active since its founding, and consists of a modest number (15-20) of computer science faculty from leading liberal arts colleges who meet periodically to discuss problems facing their programs, share solutions, and synthesize approaches to curricula and pedagogy.
  • Within Iowa, Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium has met since 1994 "to promote communication among CS faculty and facilitate discussion of common problems and issues." Meeting annually with about 25 attending, many attendees come from liberal arts colleges within the state (driving time under 3-4 hours). Some faculty from state universities also attend to discuss undergraduate curricula and to further connections between state and private institutions.

A "Voice" for Liberal Arts Faculty

In recent years, national bodies, such as the ACM/IEEE-CS CS2013 Curricular Task Force, have sought representation from liberal arts college faculty. Due to its published curricular recommendations, LACS members often have been tapped for these roles. In this context, both LACS and other faculty have identified the need for a more broadly-based "voice" for the liberal arts in computing education.

However, although LACS has been very successful (e.g., producing respected curriculum models for liberal arts computer science and being an early advocate for laboratory computer science courses), much of its strength comes from its small size and informal organization, characteristics that do not scale well. Similarly, the Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium has been successful (e.g., facilitating the networking of faculty, collaborating on a grant), due its relatively small size and personal contacts.

Altogether, the creation of this SIGCSE Committee addresses the concerns of LACS members and others for the development of a national "voice" for computing education within liberal arts colleges. The SIGCSE framework provides a natural setting for exploring possibilities on a national/international scale, as established by the SIGCSE Board.

SIGCSE Committee Charge and Goals

Computing programs in liberal arts colleges face two obvious needs. First, someone needs to speak for the liberal arts computing community in larger discussions of computing education. The need is being recognized - for example, the CS2013 committee deliberately recruited members from liberal arts colleges — but the only current non-regional organization that can be the spokesperson is LACS, which is not representative.

Second, faculty in liberal arts computing programs need a network for sharing ideas with similarly situated colleagues.For example, a SIGCSE 2015 workshop on mapping CS2013 to small and/or liberal arts colleges attracted a significant part of its audience from people who simply wanted a chance to talk with others who knew their situation. Here again, LACS served the need for a particular group, but cannot scale up to serve the entire liberal arts community. Similarly, the regional nature of the Iowa Undergraduate Computer Science Consortium does not scale in an obvious way.

This SIGCSE committee will investigate how widespread these two needs are, identify other needs related to liberal arts computing programs, and propose ways of addressing — for the whole community - any needs it identifies.

Desired Outcomes

The committee will minimally produce a report detailing the needs it identifies and its recommendations for addressing them.

Ideally, the committee will also establish the nucleus of a group to support and speak for computing educators in liberal arts colleges beyond the committee's lifetime. Such a nucleus might arise naturally from a committed core of committee members. The committee might then, for example, help that core organize a planning workshop in conjunction with a future SIGCSE Symposium, or help it understand the process of establishing itself as a legal entity.

Initial Timeline

As the committee comes together and organizes itself, the committee's activities will evolve. The committee's original schedule, subject to revision, indicates the following plan:

  • December 2015: Committee created, discussions start electronically.
  • SIGCSE 2016: Face-to-face meeting of interested people.
  • Spring/Summer 2016: Electronic discussion and data gathering to determine needs.
  • Fall 2016: Prepare report.
  • SIGCSE 2017: Final report presented, possible initial meeting of successor liberal arts body (e.g., as a pre-conference event, BoF, etc.)
  • Spring/Summer 2017: Full report appears in ACM Inroads or a similar publication.

Call for Participation and Supporting Listserv

The vision of this committee includes discussions among numerous liberal-arts faculty. To begin these conversations:

  • The committee has worked with ACM and SIGCSE to establish a committee listserv. All ACM-established listservs may be found at To join the discussion for this committee, SIGCSE members should log into their ACM account (available to SIGCSE members) at the ACM Listserv page and click the subscribe link for
  • SIGCSE members are cordially invited to attend the first informal meeting of the committee at SIGCSE 2016 in Memphis, TN, March 2-5, 2016.