Computer science department expands Python programming course

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Robert Pless, the chair of the computer science department and a professor of computer science, said expanding in-person Python courses will help all students understand computing processes.

GW will soon teach more students how to use the computer programming software Python.

The computer science department will more than double the number of available seats for its Introduction to Programming with Python class this fall, allowing up to 200 students to take the course, faculty said. Professors and officials said expanding Python courses across campus will meet high student demand and help students acquire skills in data analysis and computer programming that make students more marketable to potential employers.

“This came about, again, as a result of town halls and other opportunities that I interacted with students, and there were a number of students outside engineering that expressed an interest in gaining technical skills and, specifically, Python,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said in an interview earlier this month.

The introductory Python course covers basic data analysis and online tools like debugging, which identifies and removes mistakes in computer code, and profiling, which measures the function and efficiency of a computer program, the department’s website states. The computer science department currently offers two sections of the course, one of which is restricted to majors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, according to the schedule of classes.

Rumana Riffat, the interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said expanding Python courses helps address a “huge” demand for literacy in programming and technology across all majors at GW.

“The overall goal is to prepare a greater number of students for success in an increasingly technology-driven world,” Riffat said in an email.

Robert Pless, the chair of the computer science department and a professor of computer science, said expanding in-person Python courses will help all students understand computing processes. He said making computer science education accessible was one of his goals when he started as department chair in 2017.

“It is pervasive throughout scientific disciplines and society alike, as data and algorithms influence how organizations make decisions and the way that media selects who and what we see,” Pless said in an email.

He said the department will continue to grow the student cap on the course in future semesters if student demand increases.

“Python is increasingly common as the first programming language that someone learns because it is a sensible choice for anyone that wants to get started quickly and do interesting things,” he said.

He said the department is currently hiring three professors of practice who will teach introductory courses in subjects like Python. He said administrators have supported the Python course expansion, and the initiative fits within the department’s budget.

“I think being able to demonstrate that you have that skill to work with new and different kinds of data and do new and different kinds of things is going to be important across all kinds of jobs, especially internships, because that’s going to become part of the skill set that is expected,” he said.

James Taylor, an instructor of computer science who teaches one section of Introduction to Programming with Python, said the program is one of the most “popular” and “fastest-growing” computer programming languages since it only requires the input of simple computing commands to perform functions like generating data plots.

“It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, there’s really a need in order to be able to take a large amount of data and be able to look at it in various ways,” Taylor said.

He said introductory courses on programming with Python would ideally spread across a two-semester curriculum. The first semester would cover the fundamentals of the program, while the second would focus on using the language to complete more “complex” functions, like regression analyses and machine learning – a subset of artificial intelligence that uses algorithms and statistical models to perform a task.

He said providing students who study political science or international affairs with a basic background in Python programming will equip them with skills to analyze data from sources like the World Bank.

“One of the strengths of Python is that it’s very capable of being able to – if you feed it a lot of data, and then use a lot of the tools that are available – get a very succinct and deep analysis without having to really know how a computer works,” he said.

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