The Rise of Gen-CS? Computer Science Interest at Stanford Skyrocketing

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Stanford's CS Building

Within these walls may be the computer science architects of the singularity.

Something strange is afoot at Stanford University’s Computer Science Department. About five years ago, the top-ranked department had seen much better days. The dot-com bubble, which had brought in many students into introductory computer science courses, had burst and warnings about corporate hiring overseas had driven students into other degrees programs. But then something mysterious happened. After years of declining student interest, what started as an upturn in enrollments back in 2006 has emerged into a department swelling with students and growth continues to increase. While Stanford has definitely stepped up their game with a recent restructuring of their degree program, perhaps these enrollment numbers reflect something deeper happening in the technoculture we now live in: the birth of the paradigm-shifting singularity.

News of this shift in the student data comes from the Computing Education Blog, which recently shared a note from Professor Eric Roberts who has taught introductory computer science courses for 30 years. His note both serves as inspiration and as a warning of what may be on the horizon. He summed up the situation as “downright scary.”

Enrollments in CS106A, Introduction to Computer Science — Programming Methodology, for academic year 2009-2010 were up 51% from the previous two years, which witnessed about 20% growth. But more amazing still is his report that enrollment in the first quarter of the 2010-2011 school year was already up 120% from 2009. Other related core computer sciences courses were consistent with this rapid upswing. Furthermore, while Professor Roberts attributes part of this growth to the program’s restructuring the program in 2008 which brought greater flexibility for students, he suggests that Stanford may be at the front line of a more general trend that will hit computer science departments across the country in the next few years.

To really appreciate what these numbers mean for Stanford, we need to both appreciate the university’s contribution to the field of computer science and assess what the last 10 years have meant for the field. First of all, history shows that something in the water at Palo Alto is tantamount to computing pixie dust. Consider this handful of events:

  • In 1977, Leonard Bosack and Sandra Lerner meet in a Stanford computer lab, marry and are hired to manage the computing facilities in the computer science department and the graduate school of business. Though separated by 500 yards, they discover a way to connect the two local area networks together and form a company, which would later become Cisco.
  • It’s 1994 and David Filo and Jerry Yang are doctoral students in electrical engineering. Having collected numerous links to all the new websites on the web, they organize their list into a website, Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, then decide to make the name easier to remember: Yahoo!.
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin meet for the first time in 1995, and a year later, they’re collaborating as grad students on a search engine called BackRub, which is later renamed to Google.

Other Stanford alum helped build the backbone of the web, such as Vinton Cerf, a Stanford mathematics student, professor, and co-inventor of the TCP/IP internet protocol, and David Boggs, who developed the first Ethernet protocols while working at Xerox and studying for his master’s in electrical engineering. Then there’s Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Logitech… you get the picture.

This university isn’t some college mill churning out 22-year-olds with computer science degrees stuffed in their pockets. Stanford’s computer science department, along with other top programs at Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie-Mellon, has a tradition for producing innovators that create and direct the Information Age. That’s why it’s so hard to fathom that a few years ago, selling the program to bright-eyed students looking for a future of promise was a tough sell. In fact, only around 80 students were declared computer science majors in 2006, a nearly 50% decline since the dot-com bubble burst.

It seemed that the computer science glory of yesteryears had lost its luster.

But during this time of uncertainty, computer science started to get its groove back with the shift toward personalized tech, as evidenced by increasing iPod sales and improving mobile and wireless technology. In 2004, when Merriam-Webster picked “blog” as the word of the year and iTunes sold its 100,000,000th song, Facebook launched and over the next two years, the social network quickly expanded into more universities and workplaces. With the instant access to social sites and media being offered with even faster connections, portable digital devices were moving to the center of the culture. These devices penetrated quickly into the lives of teenagers who were starting to think seriously about college.

Then the decline ended. In 2007, Stanford’s enrollment took a turn for the better, as did enrollments around the country. Perhaps it was the endless possibilities offered from the launch of the Wii console, along with the success of the PS3 and Xbox 360 toward becoming the center of the living room entertainment. Or maybe it was the repopularizing of the small startup model with the success of Facebook and YouTube (and the hopes of a billion other small team startups) along with the ability of companies like Apple and Google to churn out a steady stream of tech innovations. But something made computer science look like a promising career choice to students arriving at colleges across the nation.

The faculty at Stanford could have easily kicked back and enjoyed the sudden upswing in what may be a cyclic pattern reflecting the strong correlation between the state of a high-tech economy and student enrollments. Instead, they opted to revitalize the curriculum by overhauling the computer science major. This meant streamlining the foundational core courses and creating tracks that aligned with student interests, providing focus and depth for upper divisional courses and electives. In other words, the roam-where-you-want-to college experience was replaced with a choose-your-own-adventure plan that landed you right into a specialization, making it even easier to visualize what type of career your degree would land you in.

The list of tracks reads like a tag list for any tech site: Artificial Intelligence, Biocomputation, Graphics, Human-Computer Interaction, Information, Systems, and Theory. There’s even an Unspecialized track for the jack-of-all-trades type and an Individually Designed track, for those who don’t like compartmentalization.

A poll revealed that strong student response to Stanford's new curriculum tracks.

The results? The first year of the program (2008) witnessed an increase of over 40% in students declaring computer science as their major (from 87 students the prior year to 123). A poll revealed that almost 80% of the students found that choosing their own track was the most appealing part of the degree program. You can watch Professor Mehran Sahami, lead architect for these curriculum changes, discuss what the changes mean for Stanford at the video below.

Thirty years ago, computer science was only for those fueled by their geeked-out love of computers. In the dot-com era, the surge in computer science majors appeared to have a heaping dose of wealth-driven motivation. But, according to Professor Roberts, the flocks of students from a broad range of disciplines coming to his lectures see the course as a way to buttress their resumes before emerging into a weak economy. This turns computer science into something akin a debate class, helping to move a candidate through one more stage in the resume review process. But it’s also good news for the department’s research interests, especially for robotics which has captured our interest with a self-parking robot car, Stickybot, and the recent robot block party.

But no doubt the immersion of ever-connected devices into the culture has also generated much more interest in actually creating the technology, and not merely using it. The rise of app stores alone may account for tremendous interest because the barrier to entry is so low. But this kind of surge in interest does have its cost, as recent reports of academic dishonesty at Stanford show some of the growing pains that are bound to happen.

If Stanford’s track record holds any weight, somewhere within the minds of students furiously writing code for their midterms are the percolating ideas that will help usher in the singularity. Feeling left out? No worries…Stanford offers their online introductory computer science courses, along with a few robotics courses and an iPhone programming class for free. So code on!

[MEDIA: Wikipedia, SIGCSE, Connected Social Media]

[SOURCE: Cisco, Computing Education Blog, Google, SFGate, SIGCSE, Yahoo!]

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