Computer Science Center: Why Students Need More Than a University Degree

IT is one of the fastest growing industries, so relevant universities and departments have to be very dynamic too. In practice, it is not always the case. Due to bureaucracy and lack of funding universities often cannot keep up with the latest developments and offer students outdated curricular. Therefore, in the 2000s, many Russian IT companies and research institutes came up with various educational initiatives.

The aricle was written for NRU HSE’s journal Higher Education in Russia and Beyond. I acted as guest editor of the issue dedicated to contemporary computer science education in Russia and former Soviet republics.

My authorship was formally presented only in two articles but actually I worked on seven more. Mostly exactly as editor, nevertheless some articles consists of my text more than a half. I suppose, their appearance in my blog will be rather honest. 

This one was officially written by me and Yandex academic programms coordinator E. Lebedeva.

One example of such initiative is Academy of Modern Software Engineering (AMSE), based in Saint Petersburg, which introduced evening classes for engineering students in 2005. AMSE curriculum, based on the international educational standard in software engineering (SE2004), was complementary to university education and included courses generally missing from the program.

Two years later Computer Science Club (CS Club) was founded at the Saint Petersburg branch of Steklov Mathematical Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences. It was available to everyone. The goal of the club was to introduce students and IT specialists to modern theoretical computer science and encourage them to do research in that area.

At the same time, in 2007, Yandex (Russian IT company) launched Yandex Data School (YDS), a two-year computer science program, featuring data mining courses rarely found on the university curriculum. Just like AMSE, YDS was designed to be complementary to university education.

In 2011, YDS decided to expand and open a branch in Saint Petersburg. By that time AMSE and CS Club were already well established, and most of the staff were involved in both. However, there was no conflict of interests: AMSE was specifically targeting university students, who were accepted on the competitive basis, whereas CS Club was not selective at all. Therefore, the idea of launching yet another education project looked unreasonable as it would increase the competition for both students and teachers among the institutions.

Thus, AMSE, CS Club and YDS decided to join forces and created Computer Science Center (CS Center) offering several educational tracks, with CS Club responsible for the Computer Science track, YDS for the Data Mining track (a local YDS branch now), and AMSE was transformed into the Software Engineering track. Since AMSE was to a large extent supported by JetBrains, the latter is now responsible for the Software Engineering track.

In the following we will describe the target audience of CS Center, the structure of its educational process, and finally, the motivation of both the students and organizers.

The first CS Center students had to choose a track and follow a fixed syllabus, just like it had been at AMSE and YDS. With time it became obvious that software engineering students could be interested in data mining as well, while data mining could benefit from courses in theoretical computer science, etc. Nowadays the syllabus is more flexible: in addition to the core courses students can choose from a wide variety of electives, based on their personal interests.

There is indeed quite a broad choice as CS Center is constantly on the lookout for new enthusiastic IT specialists willing to share their knowledge and skills with students. Currently CS Center offers 40 permanent courses. Most of them are taught on the annual basis, others — once every two years, depending on the demand.

Most of the courses were recorded and are available online. To reach a wider audience, CS Center launched an online initiative in programming basics in cooperation with Saint Petersburg Academic University of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SPbAU). The program introduces the students to programming and offers 12 courses, each running from 2 to 3 months. 129 people completed the online program in 2016, many of them coming from cities other than Saint Petersburg. The audience included both current students and working professionals from other fields, who wanted either to switch careers or learn how to solve their field-specific problems with the help of programming.

Since 2011, over 500 students have enrolled at CS Center. Of them, 116 have graduated and 185 are currently studying. The workload averages about 20 hours per week. Not everybody can cope with that, and the dropout rate is quite high. Often having faced with a lack of time the students choose to focus on university education or their job. Another, albeit not that widespread, reason for dropping out is a lack of commitment.

Most students appreciate the high quality of education offered by CS Center and gladly recommend it to their peers. This “through the grape wine” kind of advertising seems to be working very well. The number of applicants tends to increase every year. When asked about their motivation, most applicants reply that they feel the need for real-world projects, which is not fulfilled by the university. By participating in applied and research projects CS Center students learn how to solve problems they will encounter later in their professional lives. These projects are an important part of CS Center’s approach to education. Successful completion of a number of projects is a graduation requirement. Therefore, CS Center is always looking for new challenging projects to engage their students.

Summing up, the three main goals pursued by CS Center are as follows. Firstly, to select highly motivated students and through a two-three-years program give them a solid foundation in both theoretical and applied aspects of computer science. Secondly, attract highly-qualified specialists in different IT fields and encourage them to share their expertise with the students. Finally, to create online opportunities for professional development for people from outside Saint Petersburg. CS Center is working towards these goals steadily evolving to meet the industry expectations and demands.

The remaining question to be addressed is how educational projects such as CS Center benefit its organizers and students. Recent university graduates are usually offered an internship, which requires a lot of supervision from more experienced employees. This could be inefficient both in terms of time and costs given that some of them could leave the company shortly after the end of their internship. Students graduated from CS Center, on the other hand, are much better prepared for  work and are typically able to get up to speed quicker as they have hands on experience of real-word projects and are familiar with engineering culture. Additionally, CS Center graduates tend to be aware of their own professional interests and therefore are more likely to stay with the company after the internship. Thus such educational projects appear mutually beneficial.

The rapidly evolving IT industry requires educational institutions to be flexible, which is often a challenge for universities. CS Center could help bridge this gap by focusing on the latest trends and giving the students the skills which are currently in demand. CS Center alumni are young IT specialists with work experience in real-world projects, vast technical background and deep interest in the field.

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