Why this woman dropped out of Temple's computer science program - Technical.ly Philly

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May 12, 2015 10:32 am

Why this woman dropped out of Temple’s computer science program

Becca Refford felt like Temple's curriculum wasn't hands-on enough. She also felt that her academic advisor was too quick to suggest a different, less-technical major.

Temple University.

(Photo by Flickr user Jeannine Keefer, used under a Creative Commons license)

It was during her required freshman writing class at Temple University, watching her classmates pass around a “talking stick,” part of one of those group brainstorming exercises, when Becca Refford seriously started considering dropping out of school.

Refford, a computer science major, was volunteering at nonprofit TechGirlz and interning with Chariot Solutions spinoff Haydle at the time, and she couldn’t stop thinking about all the emails in her inbox, all the work she couldn’t get to because she was sitting in class, sharing her feelings.

A little over a year later, Refford headed to the financial aid department and filed the paperwork to leave school.

“It was the best feeling in the world,” she said.

Staying in school — she realized — had been tearing her apart.

Refford, 21, of Downingtown, is happier now. She’s part of a new paid apprenticeship program at Chariot Solutions where she spends 10 hour a week doing administrative work and 20 hours a week learning Java. (It calls to mind Tonic Design’s “minion” program.) She felt that Temple’s curriculum was too heavy on theory and not strong enough on practice. Many of her friends in their third and fourth year in Temple’s computer science department haven’t written a line of code outside of basic Java, she said.

becca refford

Becca Refford. (Courtesy photo)

“There was so much discussion of riding the bike,” she said, “and no riding the bike.”

It’s not a new phenomenon for technologists to forgo college for more hands-on experience. The Philly tech scene has a vocal handful who advocate against college for those who want to enter the tech sector.

“This isn’t an industry that you can hide from for four years and come out prepared for,” Chris Alfano, cofounder of web dev firm Jarvus Innovations, and Drexel dropout, has said.

Dr. Justin Shi, associate chair of Temple’s Computer and Information Sciences Department, has heard students’ complaints first-hand, too. In 2007, two computer science students came to his office to tell him that they were dropping out. They just weren’t learning what they wanted to learn. It was an eye-opening experience for Shi.

After that, he worked to get more hands-on courses into the curriculum.

Shi added courses for mobile and web programming and launched a digital media minor, less focused on theory and more focused on tech’s applications. One of the students who came to his office that day, Henry Paradiz, actually helped put the new courses together. (Paradiz, who didn’t end up dropping out, also spent some time working at Alfano’s company, Jarvus.)

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Still, “progress is slow,” Shi said.

For example, Temple’s computer science program still requires Calculus 1 and 2. It turns a lot of students off and isn’t really necessary to become a developer, Shi admits. These aren’t problems specific to Temple, he said. They plague most computer science programs.

That’s because, he said, these types of academic programs were created to cater to an elite few. They weren’t tailored for the masses. As technology has started to touch every part of our lives, university programs haven’t caught up.

“It’s totally wrong,” Shi said. “In my opinion, it’s really off.”

Another reason academic programs haven’t caught up? The importance of publishing in academic journals when it comes to getting tenure, he said. If you’re a young faculty member trying to get tenure, you have to get your work published. Those kinds of papers are largely driven by theory, Shi said.

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There was also one non-academic issue that drove Refford away from Temple: she didn’t feel that her academic advisor was supportive of her pursuing technology.

Her freshman year, Refford struggled with calculus and visited her advisor to talk about it. Her advisor said she had seen this with other young women at Temple and suggested Refford switch majors to something less technical. Business, maybe?

It left a sour taste in Refford’s mouth. She wondered if a male counterpart would have gotten the same spiel. She had also been around a handful of strong women in tech, like TechGirlz founder Tracey Welson-Rossman and former Philly Startup Leaders events director Gloria Bell, who had nothing but support for her interest in technology. That’s why it felt like a red flag.

While it’s not clear that Refford’s experience with her advisor is representative of the experience of other women undergrads, one thing is for sure: women aren’t graduating with computer science degrees as frequently as men. Eighteen percent of computer science grads were women in 2012.

Just over five months out of Temple, Refford feels like she’s learned as much about Java as she would have in a semester at school. She’s excited to start taking what she’s learned to build a TechGirlz curriculum.

One of the best moments, she said, was at Chariot Solutions’ developer-heavy Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference earlier this year, which she’s helped organize for the past three years. Even though she’s been part of it for a while, she said she still couldn’t understand some of the names of the talks. It was different this year.

“It was amazing to go this year and get it,” she said.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes became Technical.ly's editorial product lead after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

  • Henry Paradiz

    Just a quick correction. I did not drop out of Temple and most certainly have my degree in Information Science Technology.

    That aside. It is telling that an article like this is only getting attention five years after the fact. By the time I was already a freshman at Temple I already had many years of experience working with JavaScript and PHP. Did any of these things get any real classroom time at Temple while I was there? No. I suspect that’s not much different than other universities.

    It’s frustrating that someone can get a better education from Google than from paying thousands in tuition to a university that should know better.

    • Juliana Reyes

      Oops, sorry Henry – let me fix that. Dr. Shi was under the impression you had dropped out, or maybe there was a miscommunication and he meant you left the CS program for IST?

      • Henry Paradiz

        Thanks 🙂

        That’s probably what he meant.

  • Mark Shvets

    Great Article!!! I experienced similar difficulties at Drexel University in the late 90’s. I feel there are too many people going to college for the wrong reason. Its the old “all your friends are going to jump off a bridge” adage, but everyone says “yes, sure”. In my opinion people who want to learn Computer Science, the science part should go to college. For the rest of us, perhaps it is not necessary to go. The problem is colleges used to be where people went to get educated, to become academics or for learning’s sake. We have made university a requirement for all kinds of jobs where university is not required. Even for jobs in programming, where it is actually not required there is pressure to go to college. I personally was saved by Drexel’s co-op program, which allowed me to work. However in 1996 Drexel was $12K a year. I really enjoyed my classes outside the comp sci (film, spanish, literature), but I am not sure it would be worth being in debt for several decades.

  • Shaista Naim

    I also dropped out of Computer Science for similar reasons, but got my degree in the IST and MIS programs instead. If it weren’t for credit by examination for math and other less technical courses, I would have been convinced to get a business degree as well, and its surprising that five years later the advisers still suggest this. My two Co-Ops helped me gain more knowledge and skills that my next employers were looking for, so I was glad the IST program allowed for out of classroom credits.

  • First off, I strongly encourage anyone going into coding or ux to build a strong foundation for themselves by taking the time to learn and understand theory (because they ARE important). That said, I do also understand why people want and NEED more hands-on experience. I always recommend to our interns that they take on as many hands-on courses and opportunities as possible before graduating. I know every university is different and would highly recommend considering a transfer before dropping-out out of college altogether. I suppose the bottom-line here is that college is not for everyone — and every college is not for everyone either. In fact, I did not go to Drexel, BUT I think that more universities could learn a lot from Drexel Co-op. Our co-op students come in with awesome skills and ability that they seem to be picking up in the classroom as they prep for their *required* internships..

  • cnorm35

    This is a good example for career changers too. I enrolled in a local community college’s certificate program online and had a lot of the same feelings. I dropped out the first semester, went to an intensive software developer bootcamp in Silicon Valley and was working as a developer before my second semester would have started.

    There are enough online resources and local communities to get into the field to see what you really enjoy doing (front-end/back-end etc) and then you can really drill down on the skills you want to improve and keep up with the latest languages, frameworks and best practices.

  • guest

    I went to Drexel and didn’t learn anything, I learned everything I know by myself, by doing, failing and getting better. College learning is antiquated and is basically a really expensive ticket for a job interview. It is a good investment only because many companies require one, but it only shows that a person can stick with something, not learn something, or nor does it mean they know much of their subject either- just that they can show up for 4 years to the same place. So kudos to this person, because she will be a better programmer learning from those who actually DO it day in and day out. People teach because they can’t develop, and the college system is way behind the pace of technology and how creative people (ie. developers) like to learn. We don’t learn in a classroom that is sterile and unproductive.

    • 42Freeway

      This seems sketchy. Drexel CS is a 5 yr program with 3 co-op experiences. I’ve interviewed 50+ Drexel students and all of them are learning in the university the core concepts of computer science, but they are also doing real programming jobs as co-ops. Any graduate that has come through my company could walk into any Philly company after their second co-op (junior?) and get a full time programming job.

      • guest

        Ahh, its not sketchy, you’ve made a lot of assumptions –

        A.) Not every Drexel Student or Computer technology does the Co-Op program.
        B.) Not every programmer today went through a strictly CS program.
        C.) It is not 5 years if you already have credits and transferred in, 2 yrs there.
        D.) I think the Co-op is great, it should be 95% co-op, the rest theory – but its not how it works unfortunately.
        E.) As a ‘junior’ co-op they may be able to get a job, but a job does not equate to being proficient or a good programmer – I’ve seen tons of horrible code. I am not saying that companies shouldn’t invest in those people either, they should, but they are not the same as an experienced developer, because they lack the ‘experience’ part 😉

        Every companies needs, objectives, culture is different so I’m sure there’s a place for your view, however it doesn’t mean that college isn’t a broken system that doesn’t teach or train adequately, it is. I do not use anything that I was taught there in any fashion in my business or personal life, that I couldn’t have bought a $25 book from barnes and nobles and some cheap online courses, and learned – but many people spend over 100K!! with a loan!! Now thats dumb.

    • ambiguator

      I went to Drexel and didn’t learn anything

      I stopped reading after this.

      • guest

        Nah, I know you read the whole thing, but you can’t accept the truth. I am not anti-drexel by the way, had a great time there.

  • Nick Dell’Osa

    I was in the talking stick class with this girl and I’m a CS major at Temple. The talking stick class was a required gened, not a CS class. While Temple’s curriculum is pretty heavy on theory, it’s pretty par for the course in terms of CS. But the line about third and fourth year students only knowing basic Java is total BS. Data Structures, both Systems classes (which use C rather than Java) are pretty coding intensive, and there’s no way you’re making it past Wolfgang’s Software Design class with only a “basic knowledge” of Java. While I can understand the frustration with the math in Temple’s CS curriculum (in particular, the discrete math classes are very poorly taught), it is an essential part of Computer Science.

    And that line about third and fourth year students never having written more than simple Java is serious BS.

    • Becca Refford

      Hi Nick! I remember you. The article does mention that the talking stick took place in a freshman required writing class, not a CS class. And the exercise itself was interesting for all intents and purposes – I just had a personal realization about my educational path at that point.

      As for the “simple Java” – I based this observation off of the (admittedly small) group of friends I made while at Temple – most were pursuing their B.A., not B.S., in CS, and many were attempting to get their Gen Eds out of the way before taking major-specific classes. From reading your comment and the comments of other here, it sounds like their paths weren’t particularly representative of the path that a regular CS major takes. Good to know.

      • Aether

        I’m about to head into my third year, CS major, and I spent dozens of hours this past year considering dropping out. However, it was because I realized CS is math and theory, and I wanted more hands-on experience, but I’m not trying to change what Computer Science is. Instead, I looked at other schools with “Software Engineering” or “Game Programming” etc. degrees, or considered just dropping out and working in industry. Computer Science != Programming, it serves to teach the theory behind it all instead of teaching you how to use tools. Mechanical engineering != fixing cars. Please stop trying to change the major, the major’s purpose is for people who want to go beyond the undergrad degree and do research. That said, most CS majors should not be CS majors. Also, Computer Science should’ve been Computing Science.

      • mitchaki

        Hi Becca,

        Temple has an IS&T program and there is a pdf with the differences between CS and IS&T. Maybe they didn’t have this when you enrolled (or maybe your advisor sucked, who knows?), but it clearly states that the emphasis in CS is on theory.

        http://www.temple.edu/cis/undergraduate/undergradcs/documents/csistcomparebrochure2014.pdf

        I have to ask, did you not research anything before you declared a major? Or did you just automatically think that CS was a good idea because you always hear about how much one can make with a CS degree? Don’t get upset, it’s common. I know a LOT of dropouts (and people who changed majors) who chose CS because they thought it was cool and could advance their career just by name but failed because they didn’t know what it entails. It is true though, my friends with CS degrees make a lot of money, but they use a lot of the calculus and theory that they learned. If you don’t feel you need to know math and theory, then CS was a wrong choice not a misleading program.

        Just because you don’t want to be a computer scientist doesn’t mean a school has to change their curriculum. What should happen is an offering of a program that focuses on what you, I, and many others want to do – just program (type code). Oh wait, those programs do exist. Did you ever think about Information Systems and Technology? I am an IS/IT student at a different college and it’s more hands-on experience with hardware/software, not so much theory.

        It is great to see that you’re happy now doing what you’re doing. Really, you should mark this up as a learning experience and move on. CS just wasn’t for you.

  • CLander

    I go to Temple and this article is why I advocate a more vocationalized approach to basically ANY major that requires you to do ACTUAL work (that is, anything outside of the college of liberal arts). People need to know how to do the work that is required to be understood in their field, not just to deeply think about it and take multiple-choice tests on it. People want to learn how to do a job, not learn the theories on how somebody more experienced does their job.

  • Sandile Keswa

    While the statement that students don’t write code “outside of basic Java” is literally incorrect, the message it attempt to convey is perhaps too pervasive to ignore. Students don’t get industrial exposure nearly to the degree that most companies would expect. Corporate relations within our department are mostly with insurance companies and banks, and not tech companies. Myself and a group of other strong-willed computer science majors are trying to change this by creating an organization called TU Dev which is dedicated to exposing computer science students to the software industry. We’re hoping that through hackathons, meetups and tech talks, we can raise Temple’s technology profile. Hopefully it isn’t too little too late.

  • pianocomposer

    I have a degree in computer science and was required to take 30 hours of advanced mathematics for majors. I’m not saying I use that math as part of my job, but the purpose of getting a CSC degree was to be prepared for any programming position, including artificial intelligence, systems analyst, etc. HOWEVER, I was also required to learn 10 CSC languages that prepared me to program in virtually any business or research environment. I have no respect for programs that don’t prepare students for the real world. (I got my degree at California State University, Chico.)

  • matthew berardi

    Temple’s CS program is already too watered down. If you don’t want to study theory you shouldn’t be studying computer science. It’s a shame Dr Shi is catering to this crap. They already have a program for you, it’s called IS&T.

  • mccoma

    “For example, Temple’s computer science program still requires Calculus 1 and 2. It turns a lot of students off and isn’t really necessary to become a developer”

    But its necessary for a Computer Science program – what it sounds like they want is a Software Engineering program. There is a difference.

  • John H

    Computer Science != Programming just like Mechanical Engineering != Fixing Cars.

  • Michael Abramowitz

    Wondering if she went to the department heads at any point to stress her concerns. As a Temple CIS grad – I know from my time in school that the department will always sit down with you and discuss any concerns (I graduated 5 years ago, and I still email some of my professors from time to time to see how things are going or with any questions/concerns).

    I was a TA for a few lower level programming courses when at temple, and yes I will agree that the first half of the program is not hands on enough (not even close – they really need to add more in the first 2 years especially regarding project set up – such as teaching Git or having labs submit code via Git repository vs emailing in a local file. they could easily do this in its own course if they didn’t make you take calc 1 or 2 anymore – which i went through but never have used in school or work), but it certainly is not any reason to abandon the program. Once you start to get into the 3000 level courses, the programming really amps up after you have a lot of the theory already completed. College is not a race, its a marathon – theres a reason they hammer down the theory so hard early vs the actual coding aspect. They really want you to have a strong base in theory so you can apply it with out even thinking when it comes time to code. They also do this so you can take your core classes early and get them out of the way, so you don’t have to waste hour after hour with IH/mosaic’s rather then the CIS lab time you need to complete the assigned projects.

    As for advising. Always has been terrible and not just for CST – I’ve heard some horror stories from some of my college roommates. Two of them were told to take the wrong classes by advisors in their schools and it caused them to graduate a semester late (as well as pay an extra semester of tuition). This is why I would strongly encourage any CIS/IT major to talk to the heads of the department rather than an advisor. They really do care, sometimes its nice to be one of the smaller majors at the school as you can get individual attention if needed.

    Either way, in school or out of school. I would strongly urge anyone to learn and practice just as much theory as actual coding. I couldn’t picture working a day with out applying theory I learned at Temple. It really is important as you start to work on larger projects or create brand new projects from scratch. It will save a lot of headaches down the line.

  • derpledoop

    I don’t blame the school here. I think she wanted to be a developer and not a computer scientist. They are entirely different fields of study.

  • Part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of what computer science is / what a computer science degree is. Computer Science isn’t just programming or software engineering — it’s the study of information, and how it’s stored, represented and communicated.

    I have a CS degree from the University of Waterloo. Many of our lectures and assignments involved little to no programming. Sometimes we had to construct DFAs or Turing Machines. Sometimes we had to determine runtimes in big-O notation or prove theorems. A CS degree is not the same as a hacker bootcamp or a community college programming diploma.

  • Digglet

    A good example: in basic algorithms courses you learn about time complexity. One of the most important and fundamentally useful tools in understanding how programs scale. One of the best ways of understanding time complexity (big O, Omega, and Theta) is by using l’Hˆopital’s rule, which is taught it calculus 2. As many people have already said, being a computer scientist is not about programming. To quote one of the best and most important computer scientists who ever lived “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” -Edsger Dijkstra

  • Charlie Summerscales

    This article is disheartening, but not for any of the reasons it was actually written for. Like many others suggested in the comments, Computer Science is supposed to be about theory and the principles underlying our current technology. Yes, Calc 1 and 2 are required by most programs (I go to Penn State), as it should be. It is a math-heavy major. Ever try to do anything regarding machine learning, or data mining in general, without understanding probability concepts? Information Systems and Technology would have been a much better choice for her if she desired to work more directly with programming and forgo some of the more research-y type classes.

    I am happy she made the right decision for herself, but please do not suggest Computer Science needs changing or to move away from a math and theory-centric focus simply because it doesn’t appeal to some people. The major has a hard enough time fighting against public misconceptions (“Oh you study Computer Science? Cool, so can you fix my Outlook for me?”), and what was mentioned in the article should be held up as strengths and pillars of the study, not as weaknesses.

  • Alon Altman

    It is inexcusable for the advisor to recommend something “less technical” when Becca clearly expressed the desire to learn something more technical.

    As people have mentioned before, “Computer Science” is an unfortunate name to a subdicipline of mathematics. Computer Science has existed long before computers ever existed. Ada Lovelace is a pioneer of computer science and lived long before the first computers were ever built.

    It is unfortunate that academic institutions, in attempt to increase attendance market these pure-theory disciplines as relevant to employment as a developer.

    I got my PhD in computer science, and I knew from the start that I am there to study theory. I learned the practice of programming computers throughout middle and high school and in my spare time during college. I am now employed as a Software Engineer, and rarely use my CS knowledge, though it sometimes is useful to have a rich mathematical background.

    I hope Becca would have a successful career as a software developer. She is clearly passionate about that work!

  • ChemMJW

    My takeaway from this article is that Becca Refford wasn’t ever really interested in being a computer *scientist* or studying computer science. From the article’s text, it seems like she wanted/wants to be a computer *programmer*. Those two are not even remotely the same thing. Programming is required for computer science, but computer science goes far beyond computer programming. If there was any shortcoming here, it seems to be in the ability of Temple’s CS department to explain to prospective students exactly what CS is and what types of careers it leads to. Those who are interested purely in computer programming should indeed be advised to avoid a computer science major (because programming is not what computer science is) and instead seek more applied computer technology tracks like information science, information technology, and so forth. Also, larger community and junior colleges tend to offer tracks in very focused computer application subjects such as web programming and mobile development, etc. Based on the article, these type of computer technology applications seem to be much more aligned with Refford’s interests than a course of study in actual computer science. I don’t agree that Temple’s curriculum is at fault; the reason Refford didn’t like the curriculum was because it wasn’t what she was actually interested in, not because of some fault in the curriculum itself. This whole article seems much ado about nothing. It’s no surprise that people are happier and more successful when the actually pursue what interests them. Computer science didn’t interest her; computer programming did. Now that she’s out of the CS program and in the paid internship, she’s happier, and there’s now a slot open at Temple for a student who actually does want to study computer science. A win for everyone involved.

  • Daniel Martin

    I am boggled at the idea that a Calculus 2 prerequisite could be considered unnecessary for a CS program. Either that means that this is a CS program that doesn’t teach big-O analysis, or that thinks it’s acceptable to wave big-O analysis across students’ faces without requiring them to first take the math course that talks about infinite sequences, series, and limits. The first would make me wonder how this program could honestly call itself “Computer Science”. The second would make me wonder how this program can call what it’s doing “teaching” – exposure without ensuring understanding isn’t teaching.

    Not everyone is cut out for doing a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Some people aren’t that academic, and that’s fine – there are, and should be, other less academically-oriented ways into the tech world. But I see no reason why the profiled case should be an example of a student being failed or ill-served by the CS department. College maybe wasn’t for her, and there was some possibly sexist crap going on with that advisor. Neither of these should provoke this sort of self-flagellation from the CS department.

    (Unless that advisor was a departmental advisor, in which case the department does have a problem but it isn’t Calc 2)

  • Ellen

    Calculus was required for my undergraduate degree (SB at MIT), and I have never used it (except in other classes) in my subsequent career as a computer scientist, which has included earning a PhD from MIT, working for 11 years at Google as a software engineer and research scientist, becoming a tenured professor, and publishing in many different areas of computer science (architecture, data mining, AI, web, etc.) Calculus is necessary for a minority of specialties in CS, such as computer graphics and machine learning, but not for most computer scientists, even PhD-level ones. That’s why the program I teach in only requires discrete mathematics, which *is* necessary for computer scientists, in order to develop and analyze algorithms. Calculus is just not necessary for most CS graduates. It’s nice to have, but the same could also be said of many other non-required classes.

  • Becca Refford

    Reading this almost year later (and now that it made the “buzzy” list), I want to weigh in one last time.

    I don’t regret my decision one bit, I get to do what I love every day now.

    I don’t think poorly of Temple, or of a CS degree. I only wish that a) hands-on projects were encouraged more frequently, b) there were more IT major options available for those interested in technology, or c) outside work and internships were more credit-able. I *love* Drexel’s co-op program, and had actually enrolled there with a scholarship upon HS graduation…. when my parents told me they wouldn’t be footing the bill for school. At that point, the cost analysis didn’t add up – it didn’t seem worth it to pay ~$50K a year for schooling when I was making meaningful connections already. I want to start a business, long-term. I want to take career risks, long-term. Being straddled with student debt wasn’t conducive to either of those things.

    I’m glad that this article became ‘buzzy’, to borrow Technically’s term. Reading these responses initially made me question my stance, but I’m happy to have been in the middle of such a debate — it brought some colorful responses from the community. Though mixed, I’m glad my experience opened up a bigger conversation about the role of traditional education when it comes to something so fast-moving like tech.

    Here’s to always learning, school or not!

  • DaveVoyles

    Theory is great in academia, but not a great answer when someone needs something tangible done at the end of the day.

  • Stefan Lekic

    I am lucky enough to have had Dr. Georgio Ingargiola for CS1068. He would carve up the starting 30 into hardcore 5, and great 10. The rest would just drop or go to IS&T. And yes, we had girls that kicked butt.
    As far as “Many of her friends in their third and fourth year in Temple’s computer science department haven’t written a line of code outside of basic Java” comment is concerned, CS is not about java nor any particular programming language. There are PLENTY of programming assignments and projects that heavily deal with subjects such as data structures, algorithms, software design, low level and system programming; pretty much standard CS curriculum. With all due respect to Becca, but it seems to me the problem here are uninformed decisions as opposed to standard university level CS curriculum.

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