Tech culture yields opportunities and challenges for Stanford

Jan. 29, 2016, 2:02 a.m.

With famous alumni scattered as founders of companies like Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Yahoo and Palantir, Stanford’s proclivity for computer science and tech ventures is well known and widely discussed. While Stanford’s impact on Silicon Valley has often been acknowledged, tech culture has a strong influence on undergraduates at the University as well.

In a snapshot, it is clear that tech is a big deal on campus. Computer science (CS) is the largest undergraduate program, with 365 newly declared majors in the 2014-2015 academic year. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, CS accounted for the largest portion of undergraduate degrees conferred, making up a little over 12 percent.

Yet according to the undergraduate CS website, computer science is not confined to one major at Stanford. In addition to the major in CS, the department lists the related degrees of mathematical and computational sciences, electrical engineering and symbolic systems. All four majors together represented 18 percent of degrees conferred in 2014 and have seen growth in the subsequent year.

CS and the “Stanford Experience”

According to popular CS professor Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S. ’93 Ph.D. ’99, part of CS’s popularity at Stanford is due to its proximity to Silicon Valley.

“I think it’s really part of student culture,” Sahami said. “Students tell friends in their freshman dorms about CS 106A and it spreads around.”

CS 106A, the introductory CS class at Stanford, is popular even among students who don’t plan on pursuing computer science. According to Sahami, 1,600 students took the course during the regular 2014-2015 school year and approximately 90 percent of undergraduates take the class during their time at Stanford.

Teddy Becker-Jacob ’18 is a prospective philosophy major who lives in the Humanities House and participated in the Structured Liberal Education program (SLE) his freshman year. While he doesn’t have an interest in CS as a major or career, he said he nevertheless plans to take CS106A.

“I don’t think I would be doing Stanford right if I didn’t take CS106A at some point,” Becker-Jacob said. “It’s a rite of passage.”

When asked if there was a humanities equivalent, a class in the humanities field that is similarly popular, Becker-Jacob couldn’t think of an equivalent. Kinsey Morrison ’18, an international relations major, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Even if they haven’t taken [CS 106A], everybody knows Karel [a CS 106A assignment] and everyone knows the story of Mehran throwing candy,” Morrison said. “I don’t want to take away from how phenomenal it is, but I wish we had that elsewhere.”

Morrison clarified that she believes many classes in other departments are taught equally well, but don’t “get the publicity they need and deserve.”

When asked why she thinks students are so excited about computer science, Morrison discussed her experience as a tour guide. According to Morrison, it seems like students are often introduced to CS once they get to Stanford.

“It doesn’t seem like prospective students are predominantly more interested in CS, or even engineering,” Morrison said.  

According to computer science course advisor Juliana Cook ’15 M.S.’16, many students come to her in their sophomore and junior years having recently become more interested in switching to CS. While the majority seem to be switching from different fields within engineering, she says that there are a significant number of students with a background in music or art who want to “see what their options could be.”

For Cook, who didn’t plan on majoring in CS before she came to college, Stanford can help students discover this interest earlier.

“I think if I was at a different school, I still would have been exposed to CS, but I’m not sure at what point it would have been in my career,” Cook said. “CS 106A is a very welcoming environment, which isn’t always the case at other schools where it isn’t as fun or engaging.”

For some students who aren’t interested in computer science, however, the experience can be less positive.

Roberts Mencis ’18, a philosophy and religious studies double major, took CS 106A but has since decided that computer science is not for him. Socially, this has not always been easy.

“Not to bash CS, because there’s a lot of super brilliant and interesting people,” Mencis said, “but it sucks that there’s some issues, whether it’s politics or philosophy, [where] it can be hard to find people to talk about those things.”

Mencis is not alone in this phenomena. According to Dan Edelstein, Resident Fellow of the Humanities House and professor of French, the difference in numbers can make it hard for students interested in the humanities to meet each other.

“I hear from a lot of freshmen in particular just how hard it is to be a student interested in the humanities when everyone else on your floor is excited about 106A or has just declared CS,” Edelstein said.

Into the Future

Stanford has recently taken steps to re-emphasize the role of the humanities at Stanford. Actions have included a new campus tour instituted at the beginning of this year to highlight the humanities, the Summer Humanities Institute to attract high school students with strong interest and talent in humanities fields and the Humanities House itself.

Yet according to Becker-Jacob, hearing about how the humanities are “dying” or “in crisis” can get old.

“It’s exhausting to hear about it over and over,” Becker-Jacob said. “It really just drains the energy from the room and makes people sad.”

Edelstein took a similar attitude, saying “if there is one myth that will not die, it’s that students need to have pre-professional majors in order to get a job.”

According to Edelstein, this myth has been refuted by employment patterns and the fact that employers overwhelmingly look for applicants who can communicate clearly and write well.

“Everything that makes the humanities ‘fuzzy’ is what makes it practical in the real world,” Edelstein said.

However, Edelstein acknowledges that the unequal distribution of majors persists.

“I think what I find really disappointing is how there seems to be a certain … lack of academic diversity,” Edelstein said. “I think it leads to this unfortunate desire to find hierarchies of disciplines everywhere.”


Contact Ada Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’

Ada Statler '18 is an earth systems major hailing from Kansas City (on the Kansas side, not Missouri). She's most passionate about environmental journalism, but cares about all things campus-related.

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