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CS106A enrollment numbers reach record high

Enrollment in the introductory computer science (CS) course CS106A has exceeded 660 students for autumn quarter 2011, a record high for all courses in the CS Department and a continuation of the class’ enrollment growth, which has been accelerating since 2007.

Mehran Sahami B.S. ’92 M.S. ’93 Ph.D. ’99, associate professor in computer science and associate chair for education in the department, is teaching CS 106A this fall. Sahami said the department is welcoming this growth.

“The fall class has been growing consistently, but this year it grew more than we expected,” he said. “For us, it’s pretty exciting to have this many students going through the program. We have seen our introductory CS106 series as an indicator of the number of students who will declare a CS major, which has also been increasing rapidly.”

CS106A set a record for enrollment during the height of the dot-com bubble in the 1999-2000 academic year, with 762 students taking the class over the course of the year. This record was nearly broken in the 2009-10 school year. Sahami estimates that nearly 1,100 students took the class last year, including 500 during fall quarter. This year, that fall quarter enrollment record has already been exceeded by 30 percent and is on track to beat the yearlong record.

Despite these growing numbers, Sahami and other CS106A professors, including Jerry Cain, Steve Cooper and Eric Roberts, continue to strive to accommodate all of the students who enroll in the course.

“It’s great for more students to actually get experience with computing and to get the empowerment of working with programming,” Sahami said. “A large number of students go through the class every year, and we want to serve all the students who want to take it.”

This quarter, high demand for the course may mean students foregoing seats, even though the class is hosted in Stanford’s largest lecture hall: Hewlett 200.

The next largest venue for the class would be Dinkelspiel or Memorial Auditorium.

The CS Department itself has been expanding to accommodate this spike in interest.

“We hired a new lecturer and teaching faculty member last year,” Sahami said. “There is definitely a need for growth within the department. Especially for introductory classes, a large undergraduate, section-teaching staff is key to running the class.”

Unlike most Stanford undergraduate courses, CS106A is taught by professors and graduate-student teaching assistants (TAs) as well as undergraduate students who lead discussion sections every week. TAs deal mostly with logistical aspects of the course and occasionally fill in for lecturers when needed. Meanwhile, the undergraduate section leaders are responsible for teaching a small section–approximately 10 students–and grading assignments and tests.

Undergraduates who are interested in leading section for introductory CS courses are required to apply to the position and enroll in CS198, a workshop offered by the department intended to teach section leaders how to teach and grade. Only students who have completed the CS106 series–by either taking 106A/106B or 106X–are eligible to lead sections.

Section leader Tom Schmidt ’14 says he applied to the program last winter and has taught CS106A and CS106B sections every quarter since.

“I plan to stay with the CS198 program for as long as I’m at Stanford,” Schmidt said. “It’s a wonderful initiative with some very bright people.”

Schmidt also notes that the CS198 program is “very deeply intertwined with the CS Department.”

“All of the 106 lecturers come to our Monday meetings and are extremely supportive and open to feedback,” he said. “We have barbeques from time to time, and they are often held at professors’ houses.”

The CS106 professors seem equally appreciative for the support from their section leaders.

“One of the challenges is not only recruiting students into the teaching program, but also having them stay in the program and teach for multiple quarters,” Sahami said.

The CS106A teaching staff presented various theories as to why enrollment has skyrocketed.

“The factors of economic opportunity are very real,” Sahami said. “The high-tech economy is doing very well compared to the regular economy. There is a growing realization of the power of computing and an element of self-empowerment. Students can see more directly their contribution to technology, and they understand they have the knowledge to use their own tools themselves.”

Schmidt said that CS is “booming for a variety of reasons,” including the rapid expansion of the Silicon Valley and the flood of job opportunities that await Bay Area programmers.

“It seems like computer science is sexy again,” Schmidt said. “Startup life has been glorified in the media, and stories like Facebook’s scrappy dorm-room beginnings or Apple’s huge comeback have a certain appeal for people. It has been said before, but I would agree that ‘The Social Network’ and similar pieces of media brought programming and ‘hacking’ back into the limelight–and infused them with a bit of sex appeal.”

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