16% of seniors are CS majors. How did we get here?

Feb. 23, 2023, 5:45 p.m.

Computer science has an undeniable presence at Stanford. The CS major has long been Stanford’s most popular undergraduate major, and ties between the University and various Silicon Valley breakthroughs can be uncovered through a quick search on Google – which was itself developed by Stanford graduate students in 1998. 

Last year, about 16% of the total bachelor’s degrees conferred to Stanford’s graduating seniors were in CS, more than any other field of study.  

CS saw a dramatic rise in popularity from 2008 to 2016 when enrollment in the major increased by about 350%, according to Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S. ’93, the Tencent Chair of the CS department. Sahami said that the major is now roughly four-and-a-half times the size it was when he was appointed the Associate Chair for Education of the department in 2007. 

Stanford’s CS department was founded in 1965, when it began offering M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. A Stanford Daily headline from 1968 referred to projects in CS classes, including the introductory classes, as “‘exotic’ computer uses.” Interest in the new department grew steadily, and a total of two thousand students enrolled in CS courses that year. 

“Computer science folk are missionaries at heart,” said George Forsynth, a mathematics professor who spearheaded the creation of the CS department, in the article on the department’s growth.

After decades of burgeoning interest, an undergraduate CS major was finally created in 1986 — though not without controversy. Stanford faculty members feared that the major would “detract from the quality of the graduate programs” and fail to adequately train students in the more traditional field of mathematical sciences. 

Other faculty members argued that CS was too “new and unstable” to be studied as a major. One statistics professor cited in the 1983 Daily article about the creation of the major said that the field of computer programming was “in great danger of becoming extinct in a very short period of time.” 

In the subsequent decades, concerns about computer science’s longevity turned out to be unfounded. According to Sahami, around 1,500 Stanford students from a wide variety of disciplines enroll in introductory courses like CS 106A each year.

Sahami said that he believes one of the driving forces behind this popularity is the department’s emphasis on high-quality, accessible teaching. Stanford’s introductory CS courses are taught by faculty lecturers dedicated to creating exceptional learning experiences for students regardless of their computing background, he said. “By making those classes accessible, it creates a funnel which helps to attract more people to the major.”

The growth of the CS major has faced setbacks along the way. In the early 2000s, CS enrollment fell dramatically following the burst of the “dot com bubble” — a period when stocks in Internet-based companies plummeted after experiencing rapid growth in the 1990s. 

Students at the time avoided enrolling in CS because they feared that job opportunities in the field were not robust, Sahami said. To attract more students to the major, Sahami and his colleagues decided to re-envision it as a more expansive, interdisciplinary program. 

In 2009, the CS curriculum was redesigned to include a track structure, which allowed students to focus on an area of computing that was most interesting to them. “We showed more options in the ways that computing interacts with other fields,” Sahami said. The CS major now offers nine tracks, including Artificial Intelligence, Computational Biology and an option for students to design their own track. 

With more Stanford students participating in CS now than ever, a pressing issue for the department is supporting historically underrepresented students. In 2020, over two-thirds of Stanford’s CS students were men, according to an analysis conducted by the Daily, and only around 15% of students identified as Black or Latinx. 

Cynthia Lee, a senior lecturer in CS and course instructor for “Race and Gender in Silicon Valley,” said that there has been a “dramatic shift” within the department toward addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in the major since she first began teaching at Stanford in 2013. Nevertheless, she said that “restructuring our actions and organizations is an ongoing effort.”  

Lee attributes much of the department’s progress to the leadership of women like Lourdes Andrade, who previously served as the senior director of equity and inclusion in the School of Engineering; Kendall Beache ‘21 M.S. ‘22, a student who helped catalyze diversity-related reform in the CS department; and Breauna Spencer, who currently serves as the CS department’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Student organizations are also taking initiative to support marginalized communities in CS. One such organization is Black in CS, which co-president Olayinka Adekola ’23 said offers mentorship and networking events for Black students in CS. 

Adekola said that the organization’s main goal is to “support people who feel like they don’t have a space in the broader CS department.” She said that she hopes the CS department can continue to work on embracing diversity among CS graduate students and faculty. 

Integrating ethics into the CS curriculum is another priority for many faculty in the department.

As early as 1977, according to The Daily’s coverage, Donn Parker of the Stanford Research Institute warned of the dangers of computer-associated crimes due to new developments in CS. Parker found that there was an  “almost total lack of concern for ethics in technical schools” and CS departments across the country.

The CS department has offered courses on ethics and computing for about forty years, but the department has only recently begun expanding its ethics offerings, embedding ethics concepts into existing CS courses and bringing in multidisciplinary faculty. For example, “CS 182: Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change” is co-taught by Sahami, Rob Reich M.A. ’98 and Jeremy Weinstein; the latter two are political science professors. 

Sahami said that the idea behind the expanded ethics offerings is to encourage CS students to think about the societal impacts of their work and how to address them. 

These courses are part of the CS department’s broader efforts to bridge the gap between the humanities, social sciences and technology at Stanford. As the voices of underrepresented identity groups and different academic disciplines continue to play a growing role in the CS department, computer science will likely continue to develop at Stanford in innovative and long-lasting ways.

This article has been updated to correctly identify a statistics professor. The Daily regrets this error.

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