September 30, 2014

Cornell Computer Science Department Celebrates 50 Years

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This week, the Cornell computer science department is hosting a series of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The festivities will feature a day and a half of talks from former and current faculty and students, including a panel discussion with three recipients of the Turing Award — the computing equivalent to a Nobel Prize — according to department chair Fred Schneider ’75. The symposium will also include the official dedication of the department’s new home, Gates Hall, which Bill Gates himself will attend Wednesday.

This department’s 50 year history includes innovations from several of the department’s faculty members, according to Schneider. He said computer science faculty had a “significant impact” on the development of modern-day networking, created the information-retrieval program which spurred the development of “web search” and “led the invention of the theory of computer systems.”

“Among the top [computer science] programs, we are very well known for being a collegial and cohesive department,” he said.

Over the past 50 years, the department has also grown significantly in number. What started as a Ph.D.-only program with five faculty members last year awarded “[nine] Ph.D. degrees, 100 M.Eng degrees and 134 Bachelors degrees,” according to the computer science department’s website.

The growth of the Cornell computer science department has echoed the explosion in the popularity of the entire field, according to Prof. Ken Birman, computer science.

“When I joined [the department in 1982], nobody had ever heard of smart phones or social networks or cloud computing, and most of our classes were pretty small,” Birman said. “Today, I doubt that you could find a single Cornell student who doesn’t want to learn a little about computing, and I don’t think there is a single discipline that hasn’t been reshaped by the information revolution.”

While the computer science department is one of the oldest computer science departments in the country, it is still relatively young compared to other academic departments, according to Schneider. He said this puts the department in a unique position to educate the next generation of computer science leaders.

“The people who founded the department are still alive,” he said. “We can have an event where the pioneers are present and the young generation is there, and that’s an effective way to pass on the baton.”

With a lineup featuring many of the country’s leading experts in the field, Schneider said the symposium emphasizes the importance of computer science as an enduring academic discipline.

“It says something about the University having bet right 50 years ago,” Schneider said.

The computer science department’s 50th anniversary symposium began with a welcome reception Tuesday evening and will conclude Thursday afternoon.