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The Rigor of CMU’s BCSA Degree

1 October 2017 / pedagogy

There are many different options for studying a combination of art+technology at Carnegie Mellon. Among these is the Bachelor of Computer Science, or BCSA. During admissions season, I receive many questions about the BCSA, including, occasionally, this one:
Q: I was wondering if a BCSA major would undergo a less rigorous computer science education than a typical CS major at CMU. I love the idea of an integrated double major, but I don’t want to fall behind the other computer science students.  

A. In my opinion, any student who can get admitted to both CS and Art is a real star. It’s extremely rare to have such a dual fluency, both algorithmically and visually. I confess that I cringe when I hear the idea that the BCSA is somehow less rigorous. If anything, the BCSA students are so brilliant, because they not only understand how to make things, and how things work, but they also understand what’s worth making, and why, and how to make it compelling. The BCSA program is designed to support this. That takes a different kind of rigor.

Ok, but specifics. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the BCSA program’s requirements for CS are “less rigorous”. There are some differences between the CS Bachelors and BCSA — but that’s not one of them :) Rather than “watering down” its components, the BCSA was designed to eliminate redundancies and make more flexible elective options available, so that you can more effectively pursue your two interests, and their intersections. Here are two concrete ways that the BCSA does this:

The BCSA eliminates redundancies. Before we created the BCSA degree in 2008, CS+Art double-degree students had to take a humanities elective for their CS degree, and a humanities elective for their Art degree. The problem was, these weren’t permitted to be the same course! When we created the BCSA, we made it possible for a single humanities class to fulfill this requirement for both departments. There are lots of other examples like that.
The BCSA provides more customized, flexible approaches to the CS and Art disciplines. The BCSA degree trades off breadth in the individual sub-areas, for depth in the interdisciplinary intersection. Here’s an example: The CMU Computer Science department requires CS Bachelors students to take advanced electives in all 4 divisions of the department: Operating Systems, Logic/Proofs, Algorithms, and Applications. But most BCSA students are not particularly interested in Operating System design or abstract proofs! Instead, most BCSA students typically wish to study what the School of Computer Science calls “Applications” (such as computer graphics, computer animation, computer vision, computer music, robotics, and artificial intelligence). In order to support this focus, BCSA students are allowed to select CS elective courses from as few as just 2 of the 4 areas, if they want—and they actually have a higher percentage of CS electives in their curriculum than CS majors! (Of course, BCSA students who want to take electives in all 4 areas can, if they wish.) An analogous situation is true for the Arts requirements for BCSA students.
The BCSA and BS degrees share at least a half-dozen foundation courses, and believe me—these are very intense courses. Furthermore, if you carefully compare the Computer Science BS curriculum with the BCSA curriculum, you will see that the number of units that the BS versus BCSA students spend in Computer Science courses is actually very close:
So: that’s just 34 fewer units of Computer Science in the BCSA than in the BS. A typical class has either 10 or 12 units—so the difference between the BCSA and CS major is only about 3 classes’ worth of credits!
The BCSA is an exceptionally rigorous and challenging degree. In my opinion, it’s even more challenging than the CS bachelor’s, because it requires you to achieve excellence in both sides of your brain, and the connections between them.

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