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Stanford's hottest major: computer science

Stanford student interest in the field follows curriculum redesign, outpaces national trend

Stanford University's computer-science department last year broke its all-time record for students declaring computer science as their major.

More than 220 students in a class of about 1,700 chose to major in computer science -- a 25 percent leap from the previous record in 2000-01.

Though computer-science enrollments are up nationwide, Stanford is outpacing the broader trend, according to a recent report from the Stanford School of Engineering.

In the most recent spring term, computer science had more majors than human biology -- long the most popular major at the university.

The computer-science bump at Stanford follows a major restructuring of the program over the past several years, overseen by the department's Associate Chair for Education Mehran Sahami, a former research scientist at Google.

The goal was to cast a wider net, allowing computer-science students to see how their skills could be applied in a variety of fields.

The previous core curriculum, described in the engineering report as "monolithic and inflexible," was pared down to just six core courses, three with a theoretical focus and three with an emphasis on programming and systems.

The six courses provide a foundation that is built upon in a series of tracks that students can choose from in order to focus on their greatest personal interest. Among the tracks are artificial intelligence, systems, theory, graphics and human-computer interaction.

A number of courses from other departments -- including biology, psychology, product design and studio art -- can be included as part of a student's program in computer science.

"Virtually every field is touched by computer science in some way," Sahami told the Engineering Report.

"In medicine and biology computational methods are used to analyze DNA, predict treatment outcomes and model drugs at a molecular level. In environmental sciences, there is need for climate modeling. In investing and finance, algorithmic approaches are widely used.

"Computers have dramatically changed animation, and artists with knowledge of computers are increasingly in demand. Conversely, computer scientists studying graphics need an appreciation for art. After all, a bad picture, even one in high resolution, is still a bad picture," Sahami said.

— Palo Alto Weekly staff

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1 person likes this
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 31, 2012 at 3:46 pm

It is impossible, of course, to know the economic/political climate years away. But CS degree students I hope are getting full disclosure on the artificially short career length they can anticipate - 10 to 15 years.

They cannot realistically expect to support a family for very long or put their own kids through university. Only a minority can expect to become tech managers so they will have to find something completely different to do with a degree that tends to disqualify them from doing it.

From a career view, CS may be best as a minor enabling work in other fields anyway - sometimes spectacular work.

Only occasionally does someone in their career have to bridge a paradigm shift in how things are understood and done. Graphene displacing silicon may be a challenge for today's EE and CS people. But electronics gets broader and tech is actually replaced slowly - it's hard to find analog engineers today but they are necessary. Computer languages are usually not that much - you can learn, say, Python in a short time. Ditto yet another processor architecture.

Such drastic shortening of tech careers as we have is artificial in the US. Indeed the US is running the risk of driving out US students from STEM occupations and finding that fewer people find it worthwhile to migrate here to have such a career.

Like this comment
Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm

bru is a registered user.

Computer Science is a wonderful base of knowledge, logical & sequential thinking for anything. Learning about how operations scale and different algorithms, how computers work, is one of the best things anyone can do to train their mind.

The same laws and operations work in CS today as were there even before the advent of the computer. Learning to program helps in virtually anything.

It certainly makes more sense people getting CS degrees than what happened years ago for lack of it - that is companies hiring people with any degrees. Learning to think never hurts anyone.

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Posted by Outsider
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I gather maguro_01 doesn't have a clue what one actually learns in a CS major. A CS major forms the basis of one of the more satisfying careers with unlimited possibilities. One cannot become a professional building future computing systems without the necessary skills. A minor in CS only gives you the ability to work with CS professionals ... you won't be creating anything yourself.

Like this comment
Posted by gee
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I've been a programmer since '79 and I have many friends that have careers that are that long. I think maguro_01 has been feed some misinformation.

1 person likes this
Posted by Lothar
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Posted by gee: "I've been a programmer since '79 and I have many friends that have careers that are that long. I think maguro_01 has been feed some misinformation."

Or has been laid off and can't find another job.

Like this comment
Posted by Qasim
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2012 at 2:04 am

And with coming age of computational sociology, after computational biology which is still in its infancy, CS majors will have a ton of exciting things to do for a long time to come.

4 people like this
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 15, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Sorry I didn't notice these comments some time ago. I do have a CS degree with additional digital and analog hardware background enabling me to continue working as a contractor on communicating embedded devices - the 'internet of things'. It is rewarding and interesting.

It is inarguable that US programmers in general have truncated careers. The basic reason is the scale of the visa worker programs. Brain draining the world is a privilege, of course. We get fine colleagues and good neighbors out of it. But the scale is so large that most are average and the numbers have in some years come close to the Labor Department's estimates of new jobs in the field. The numbers have ranged from 65,000/yr to 195,000/yr plus L types (international intracompany transfers). I think there are presently 85,000/yr including local graduates.

Remember the program as it stands was bought from Congress by corporations. Corporations apply for the work visas and for any Green Card after that. The individuals do not. Changing jobs resets the Green Card process which takes many years. So the worker is essentially indentured. They are low balled a bit, but I see many seem to be working at least 50 hour weeks for the straight salary. There are many stories of older US programmers who have to train their replacement as a condition of severance, also including non-disclosure. No, Lothar, that has not happened to me.

These days the new grad job market has improved though startups tend to fads as always. But the grads generally won't work in the field for more than a dozen-15 years. That's the reality and it's hard to see how it can be argued with. We know the value of our core CS education. We also know that new languages and the like are not hard to become proficient in. Tell that to a personnel resume scanner who thinks languages are all encompassing "skills" like Word to a secretary or that CS knowledge exists and is important. CEO's have testified likewise to Congress. There never have been studies showing a labor market shortage in US tech, though there might be a shortage of US grads now since so many smart people have bailed or gotten Masters in Marketing, etc.

Once again it is a privilege to brain-drain the world which I hope the US continues to earn. But that's not what the bought-in-Washington H-1B program does. An excellent, well researched data base on the subject is at Web Link which can serve as a data base for discussion. Dr Matloff has written on and researched the topic for many years and is himself a professor in the field.

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