Following a near-doubling in 2010, the number of undergraduates majoring in computer science (CS) continues to rise rapidly, with 429 Stanford undergraduates currently declared in a CS major according to an automatically generated list on the Stanford CS website.
This increase follows a trend that has been visible since the late 1970s and is composed of numerous ups and downs, according to computer science professor Eric Roberts. Roberts attributed the popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s to the idea that no matter what a student was majoring in, he or she would benefit from some kind of computer science background, increasing the number of students who took CS courses.
“Now, students are majoring in CS because they are excited and engaged,” Roberts said. He added that about 90 percent of all Stanford undergraduates enroll in at least one introductory CS class before they graduate. He continued, “These students get excited and decide to major in CS.”
Roberts also confirmed that computer science is the second most popular major at Stanford, after human biology. In an email to The Daily, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam added psychology, biology, economics, English, history, international relations and political science to the list of the largest majors by degree conferred in 2010-11.
“Overall, the School of Humanities and Sciences has seen a slight decrease in degrees conferred in the past twenty years (mostly in humanities and social sciences), with engineering and earth sciences each up,” Elam wrote.
The Computer Science Department overhauled its curriculum in 2008. Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer science, explained some of these curriculum changes.
“We modified the CS major to allow students to choose a track … in CS after completing a small set of core classes,” Sahami said. “This structure provides students with much more flexibility in the courses they can take for their major. We also allowed for more interdisciplinary work by allowing courses from other departments that are relevant to particular tracks in CS to also count toward the major.”
Both Roberts and Sahami noticed an increase in undergraduates taking CS courses after the overhaul.
“We wanted to measure the impact of the curriculum change, so we started paying very close attention to changes in enrollment,” Sahami said. “We noticed the interest in the department and the number of majors increased substantially.”
“Two years after the overhaul, there was a near-doubling of CS majors,” he added.
Both Roberts and Sahami talked about the appeal of introductory CS courses, such as CS106A, that pull undergraduates in and result in them deciding to major in CS.
“These courses change someone’s efficacy,” Roberts said. “So that they can do more things at once.”
Roberts added that the introductory courses allow for a very tangible way for the students to see change and improvement in their skills, especially when creating applications for the class.
Sahami expressed a similar view.
“It is about the notion of empowerment of what someone can do in computing,” he said. “Someone with an idea and computer skills can build something.”
James Nam ‘14 said he enjoyed CS106A when he took it last year.
“I wanted to do more research in CS so I declared my first year,” Nam said. He attributed the number of job opportunities available for CS majors as a reason for declaring.
Jay Patel, ‘14, was thinking about majoring in CS when he came to Stanford.
“I’ve been playing around with computers for a long time now, since fourth grade,” he said, “so I came in knowing I wanted to do something with computers.”
“Right from the beginning, CS106A did a really good job of making people excited about CS,” Patel added. “I have many friends who became majors because of that class. Some of my friends take CS because they want to do a start-up in the future.”
Both professors also attributed part of this increase in students choosing to major in CS to the economy.
“There are tremendous economic opportunities in computer science,” Sahami said, adding that there is an enormous demand for those who graduate with CS skills.
“After the economic crash in 2007, computer science was the only option for some students,” Roberts said, adding that other options for students disappeared as demand for jobs in business decreased during the downturn.
While many students are choosing this major and graduating with this degree, “the demand is still outstripping the supply,” Sahami said. “We still see the numbers continue to grow.”
“It’s amazing how few people we are training relative to the jobs available,” Roberts said. He added that the CS department doesn’t drive anyone away because of this high demand.
According to a Daily article published Jan. 11, the CS department has been trying to increase female student involvement in CS courses after CS106A. While he said he is not sure if there has been a noticeable increase in interest from female students, Roberts said that the courses are becoming more balanced in enrollment between the sexes.
“It is important to raise the numbers … and have more women entering the field,” Roberts said.