A look at Stanford computer science part II: Challenges of a growing field

April 16, 2015, 11:33 p.m.

This is the second article in a two-part series, A Look at Stanford Computer Science. Read part I here.

Within the last few years, the field of computer science (CS) has grown rapidly nationwide. At Stanford, a university with a strong history of computer science, the annual number of students declaring CS as their major has grown more than 300 percent in the last decade. While this change has created excitement within the department, the rapid expansion has also provoked concerns amongst faculty.

Stretched for Resources

Chair of the Computer Science Department Alex Aiken explained the department is under stress due to the rising enrollment numbers.

“There’s always a lag when things are growing for the resources to catch up,” Aiken said. “The University has been, in my view, very supportive of the department and helping to try to keep up. But still, it’s not easy.”

He explained that the need for more faculty is apparent, but hiring qualified people can be easier said than done.

“It is always difficult to hire faculty… to find people that meet the quality threshold at Stanford – there’s never very many of those,” Aiken said. “The situation is slowly improving, but there’s obviously a huge demand from industry, so there are just never enough of the people to go around.”

With enrollment in courses like CS 106A: Programming Methodology reaching up to 700 students, faculty are faced with much more work and less time to spend with individual students.

According to computer science professor Eric Roberts, the demands on faculty have been increasing with not enough additional “relief.”

“We have seen doubling in the last five years of the average course size for faculty members,” Roberts said.

“We don’t have the resources to manage it,” he added. “We’re all teaching three times as many students as we were six years ago, and we don’t have any more of us and any more money.”

Techie Reputation

Apart from attracting more students, the Stanford CS department has also attracted much more national media attention than it has in the past.

“What’s different now is that it’s much more in the public eye,” Aiken said. “It’s become so much a bigger part of daily life… and so much is in the news about the tools that people use and impact that the field has had that people are much more aware of it.”

“That’s a change for us,” he added. “We’re not used to being noticed as much as we’ve been the last few years.”

Aiken was referring to the increase in national media attention surrounding Stanford’s connection to Silicon Valley over the last few years. In 2012, the New Yorker published an article about Stanford entitled “Get Rich U,” and in 2013 the magazine published another piece that called the University “a tech incubator with a football team.”

Stanford’s reputed connection to Silicon Valley can be a major draw to those interested in science and engineering fields.

“There’s real excitement in the entrepreneurial world that is Silicon Valley – the 24/7 excitement that’s so enticing to young people with talent, and we have a lot of those here,” Roberts said.

However, Roberts also worries that this entrepreneurial reputation might be putting off humanities students and faculty, who may think that Stanford devalues their work.

“There are certainly thresholds over which I don’t want to go,” Roberts said. “We don’t want to be in a position at Stanford, which is a general institution, where everyone somehow associates with Stanford only the technical majors and science and engineering, and increasingly that seems to be happening.”

Roberts is worried about what this reputation might mean for the University overall.

“It’s important to me that Stanford be a general intellectual environment, and I think that it’s in danger of ceasing to be so,” he said.

Nevertheless, Aiken emphasized that not all student are in CS at Stanford for entrepreneurship.

“Some of the current interest is undoubtedly driven by the job market, but there’s a lot of other reasons that people find the field attractive,” Aiken said. “There are lots of reasons beside economic motivations to study the field.”

Looking Forward

Nationally, there are concerns that all of this growth in studying computer science will lead to negative consequences as universities struggle to keep up with the demand. For example, universities around the country may have to institute restrictive policies that would reduce already limited diversity in computer science, according to both Roberts and Aiken.

“There’s no question that nationally, we don’t have the people to meet the demand,” Roberts said. “They’re just not there.”

“It remains to be seen whether we [at Stanford] can move fast enough,” he added.

While Aiken agreed that limiting enrollment will grow as a national trend, he did not think that Stanford is particularly at risk of having that happen.

“That would be an extremely un-Stanford thing to do,” Aiken said. “Stanford has always taken the view that students should be able to pursue what they’re interested in when they’re here… I can’t see that happening at Stanford.”

Aiken is hopeful for the long-term because he believes that historically, the University and the Computer Science Department in particular have adapted well to similar changes.

“We’ll get to the point where things are in balance,” he said. “But it might take a little bit of time.”

In terms of a liberal arts education, many agree that growth of the Computer Science Department will also lead to more interdisciplinary study.

“I think in the next decade, two decades, you’re going to see a lot of impact of computational thinking on the humanities and social sciences,” Aiken said.

But he also explained that the shift will be a two-way street and is not worried that Stanford will become completely focused on technology.

“It’s not just computer science influencing other fields, but I also see a lot of ideas from other fields coming into computer science,” Aiken said.

“Everybody is going to learn a little bit about computing and will know something about that in the future – that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be a techie,” he added.

In the end, both Roberts and Aiken have a high hopes for the Computer Science Department.

“I see a lot of processes moving in the right direction,” Roberts said. “We’re doing really well in hiring, and the department is as exciting now as it’s ever been.”



Contact Emma Neiman at eneiman ‘at’ stanford.edu.


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