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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.”

About Kylie Jue

Kylie Jue ’17 is a news desk editor who first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern. A sophomore from Cupertino, California, she plans on studying both computer science and English during her time at Stanford and is also a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.
  • Sam

    Umm …I think you forgot another very important reason Stanford is seeing more kids major in C.S. –it is easy to get a job and they make the big bucks even starting out!

  • PoorJournalism

    way to leave out most of the reasons that actually matter to students…
    this is just an advertisement for the department not journalism

  • tac

    Great article!

  • AdamJ

    Agree with the other two commenters. The high profile of the computer tech field draws students into 106A, and the great opportunities offered next door make it hard to leave the field after that. Contrast this with other fields, which may be as equally intellectually engaging, but that do not have such high publicity and do not offer the same financial benefits post-grad. So even if a student does take a class or two in said field and get hooked, she has little external encouragement to continue.

    Stanford should work harder to combat the misconception that only STEM grads can find lucrative and rewarding careers post-graduation. It’s not about saying this field is better than that. It’s about them acknowledging that the publicity out there (that says STEM = success) and the state of jobs in the immediate vicinity (which are disproportionately CS/EE), all paint a picture that does not accurately reflect the career prospects for Stanford humanities, social science, and I would even venture non-CS/EE STEM majors.

    But instead, we see individual departments fending for themselves. Look at the English Department, which had to create its own career-mentoring program as (they probably felt) the CDC offerings were inadequate.

  • Haha

    So uh… what “lucrative and rewarding careers” are there for say, English, history, and classics majors again?