Computer science becomes Stanford’s most popular major

July 19, 2012, 2:29 a.m.
Computer science becomes Stanford's most popular major
For the first time in Stanford's history, computer science has become the most popular undergraduate major. (LORENA RINCON-CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

220 students declared as computer science majors in the 2011-2012 school year, making it the most popular undergraduate major at Stanford.

Interest in the major over the last few years has had its ups and downs, said Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor and associate chair for the department’s education program.

“The enrollment during the past decade has been on a little bit of a roller coaster. [Enrollment] peaked in 2000 at the height of the dot-com bubble, and during the next five years… they dropped by about 50 percent. More recently, in the last few years…we’ve seen a pretty strong increase in enrollment. We have the largest number of computer science major declarations [in 2011-2012] that we’ve ever had,” he said.

He attributes a lot of this recent growth to a significant overhaul of the computer science curriculum in 2009. During that academic year, Sahami and a committee of his colleagues re-invented the program, changing major requirements and making it more interdisciplinary. Following that change, the computer science program saw an 83 percent increase in enrollment within the first two years.

“[The new program] was a significant revamp of the previous major requirements, which pretty much existed with some modifications here and there for the previous 20 years,” Sahami said. “[The new curriculum] reduced the number of core classes everyone was required to take, and we’ve put in a track structure where students can select the track they are most interested in.”

The tracks include systems, graphics, theory, biocomputation and more. Of the six core courses, three have a theoretical focus, while the others emphasize programming and systems. The new multidisciplinary electives include options outside the Computer Science Department and range from biology to studio art. With its greater flexibility, the new program’s goal is to allow students to apply their knowledge outside the field.

Professor Eric Roberts, who began teaching computer science at Stanford in 1990, emphasized the plethora of options within the major today and contrasted them with the much stricter requirements of the program when he first started teaching.

“The change that’s critically important is that… we have increased the flexibility of the undergraduate program,” he said. “[Twenty years ago], the computer science major was entirely specified. Every course that you had to submit for your degree was required. The track program has even more flexibility, and that, of course, makes it more attractive to a broader range of students.”

Of course, computer science has also undergone a comeback since the last dot-com bubble. Technology companies, especially in the Silicon Valley, continue to hire and pay graduates in the field.

“There’s no question that the Valley will soar with students. Each time… I’ve been there, I’ve talked with industry people about the Stanford program,” Roberts said. “They’re very excited about what we teach, but they can’t understand why we’re teaching so few.”

The problem, according to both professors, is that faculty hiring necessarily lags behind the incredible growth in the department over the last few years. “If the enrollment is going up by 35 percent a year, there’s no way we can keep pace… the class size will go up,” Roberts said.

Finally, the fact that technology is playing an increasingly important role in our everyday lives has meant that more and more students are choosing to take classes in computer science.

“I think with more consumer applications that people grow up using, they’re much more familiar and comfortable with technology,” Sahami said. “So there are more people interested in finding out how to be not only consumers of technology but also producers of technology.”

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’

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