The Graduate: Computer Science Edition

  • July 12, 2012
  • Scott

In The Graduate, the way I remember one part of the movie was a friend giving the main character advice:

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you.  One word.”

Ben: “Yes, sir”

Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”

Ben: “Yes, I am”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics”

Today, Mr. McGuire’s advice would probably be “Computer Science”.  Oh okay, it’s two words.

Recently Stanford revealed that its most popular major is now Computer Science. This is astonishing for a school as well-rounded as Stanford.  It isn’t just an engineering school, or just a liberal arts school (Computer Science is in the Engineering school at Stanford).  Stanford caters to students with an incredible array of majors and interests.

Not only is it the most popular major, over 90% of the student body takes at least one Computer Science course.  That last part is easier to understand for someone who attended Stanford in the last 20 years – because in the 90’s Stanford started offering CS106A to a broad array of students-  future CS majors and future History majors alike.  In fact, I was one of those non-CS majors when I took the class, and it set me on a course to later change my major to Computer Science – and my career into software.

From the Atlantic article linked above:

Stanford adores computer science, clearly; and we, in turn, tend to adore it just for that reason. It’s a place that fits our technology-obsessed times. Process stories in The New York Times describing how billion-dollar deals came together often detail Stanford alumni and fraternities, rather than those from the east.

So on one level, Stanford’s changing majors remind us that the current tech moment is already inscribed in our history. Our children and grandchildren may look back on the most popular majors of 2012 and chuckle at the naïveté of having just one field called “computer science” — or, perhaps, at the idea of a college major altogether. But the new focus on computer science, for the moment, suggests how much faith we’re putting — for our careers and our overall future — in the digital world.

What really makes Stanford special in this regard is how open the student body is to change.  I set out for Stanford to major in Political Science, Economics, or maybe Chemistry.  I ended up majoring in Computer Science.  The student body as a whole seems to reflect this ethic of adapting to the times. By exposing more people to computer science through great teaching tools and classes (like CS 106A), more people are being attracted to it as a major. But it also doesn’t hurt that the job market for Stanford Computer Scientists is as good as its ever been right now.

Equally amazing is how well Stanford’s faculty adapt to changing student demands for a particular major.  As a student, several times a class was over-subscribed and Stanford simply moved the class to a bigger classroom rather than limit the student size.  Some classes had hard limits on the number of students, but as demand goes up, Stanford finds ways to offer the class more often (either more than one section or more than one quarter per year).  In one of my classes the professor even added TAs after the first day of class, when 30 students were sitting on the stairs because all the chairs were taken.  Instead of figuring out how to cull the students out of the class, the attitude seems to be to try to figure out how to accommodate the need.

The article in the Atlantic was a followup to a blog post for the engineering school, regarding the rethinking of Stanford Computer Science’s core curriculum:

Despite this legacy, however, about a half-decade ago computer science faculty at Stanford decided it was time for a change. And so, the department that virtually invented computer science as an academic discipline in the United States decided to re-invent itself and the curriculum that had made Stanford a leader, and the Department of Computer Science one of the top programs in the world. Oversight of the effort fell to Associate Chair for Education Mehran Sahami, and a committee of his fellow faculty members.

“Undergraduate computer science enrollment at Stanford had been on a rollercoaster, rising high with the dotcom boom in the late 90s and then plummeting,” said Sahami, who is a former research scientist at Google and now the Robert and Ruth Halperin University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that from 2008 through 2018 there are three jobs awaiting every newly minted computer science graduate. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day. Computer science is about having real impact in the world,” the professor explained.

I got to know Mehran while I was at Stanford (as an undergrad), and he was already a PhD candidate that everyone looked up to – because he had the humanity and people skills to go with the Computer Science acumen.  I remember when he served as a resident faculty adviser at Naranja, the dorm next to ours, for example – not a typical assignment for a PhD candidate in Computer Science.

So what is Stanford changing in the core curriculum?

There’s a paper to explain it, of course (and I see Dr. Sahami and another favorite lecturer from my days at Stanford, Julie Zelenski, are on the list of authors, along with Alex Aiken).

It still looks like a pretty daunting list of requirements to hit, but there’s considerably more freedom in that list than there was when I majored in Computer Science.  It also looks like they’ve put more thought into themes within your major, rather than just a laundry list of classes that “count” toward your major credits. 

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