Data Courtesy of Prof. Fred Schneider

The number of Cornell undergraduates majoring in computer science has more than tripled since 2011.

September 18, 2016

Computer Science Growth a ‘Phenomenon’ at Cornell

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Nikita Gupta ’17 is a computer scientist who loves to cook. When she was a freshman in high school, she created a website so she could share her favorite recipes with friends and family.

Gupta uploaded videos of herself cooking onto a website and attached written recipes. She hadn’t been exposed to computer science before, but after working on the website, she decided she wanted to pursue the major in college.

“C.S. allowed me to integrate my passion for technology and cooking together, and create something that was helping my friends and family around the world,” she said.

Gupta has experienced firsthand the computer science craze sweeping through Cornell and across the country. In the last five years, the number of C.S. majors at Cornell has more than tripled — from under 200 to almost 700 — according to Prof. Fred Schneider, chair of the department of computer science.

The Computer Science Boom

The undergraduate demand for computer science is by no means a movement restricted to Cornell. “It’s a national phenomenon,” Schneider said. “Different universities have dealt with it in different ways.”

At the University of Washington, competitive applicants to the major need a GPA of at least 3.5 in C.S., math and English, he said, addressing the demands imposed by the major’s new popularity.

“So far we haven’t done those things, and I think the faculty would prefer not to do that,” Schneider said. “Cornell would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

He attributed part of the study’s attraction to its new demand and versatility in the job industry — computer science is useful in fields from finance to biology, and students know it’s “the new skill to have,” he said.

“The number of students who are not C.S. majors and want to take C.S. courses has grown significantly,” Schneider said.

Enrollment in computer science courses has increased along with the department's number of undergraduate students.

Data Courtesy of Prof. Fred Schneider

Enrollment in computer science courses has increased along with the department’s number of undergraduate students.

This booming demand has had consequences, as Cornell has struggled to accommodate a swift increase in student interest in computer science. Enrollment in C.S. classes has doubled in the past five years, and the new popularity has relegated some computer science majors to waitlists when they try to enroll in desirable courses.

This semester, four high-level courses — out of the 27 the department is offering — have waitlists comprised entirely of computer science majors. In one course, 50 students are still hoping to enroll.

Schneider said this congestion is caused by restrictions in lecture hall sizes, and that professors would otherwise “be very happy” to teach larger versions of the courses.

“We’ve been asking for larger rooms, but the way the University does room scheduling has not allowed that,” he said.

To ensure that all C.S. majors can finish their graduation requirements in four years, the department uses a registration mechanism that prioritizes enrollment by year — senior majors have the first choice of classes, juniors have the second, and so on, Schneider said. Non-majors have the lowest enrollment priority, which can create additional waitlists of students who are not affiliated with the major but would still like to take courses.

“It’s virtually impossible if you’re a non-major to take a C.S. course,” he said. “And the department is not happy about this.”

Why Study Computer Science?

Students like Gupta said they chose C.S. for a variety of reasons, from academic interest to the field’s usefulness in multiple industries.

“The one thing that really excites me about computer science is that I can go into any industry and know that a software engineering role will be needed,” Gupta said. “I can go into fashion, I can go into food, I can go into social service, I can go for the consumable hardware products.”

Eric Landgrebe ’20 said he was drawn to computer science because he finds it intellectually stimulating.

“It’s unlike any other type of technical subject because it requires you to think about problems really generally and consider all the cases, instead of a math problem where you just can apply what you know and find the answer,” he said. “It has to be right all the time, not just in a particular case.”

Another factor in Landgrebe’s choice of major was that his C.S. degree will grant him a significant amount of job security, he said.

“It would be good for anything in tech, and also just anything that requires a lot of math and technical skills like investing,” he said.

Agi Csaki ’17, co-president of Women in Computing at Cornell, agreed with this assurance. Csaki began college as a math major, but switched to C.S. because she “wanted to be making an impact on people’s lives” — if she works in a large tech company, the code she writes could be used by billions of people, she said.

“After my first theoretical math class, I think that I felt like it was too far removed from the real world,” Csaki said. “I felt like in my computer science classes, I was applying everything that I loved about math, but it was really tangible the impact I was making on the world and on people.”

The Future of C.S. at Cornell

Computer science, as students study and apply it today, has only recently become established as a popular field, according to Csaki.

“More and more people are interacting with technology and with computer science,” she said. “I think that as kids are growing up interacting with that, it becomes more of a reasonable field to go into, rather than a while ago when tech seemed to be only for a very small select group of people.”

Prof. Éva Tardos, computer science, said students who were not C.S. majors first began to express interest in the classes around 15 years ago, after the “dot-com bust.”

“Having taken some computer science classes will make many students’ resumes look so much more powerful and interesting,” Tardos said. “The hunger for knowing more and more C.S. is increasing.”

Last year, in Tardos’s Introduction to Analysis of Algorithms course — an upper-level class required for the major — it was apparent that many of the students were non-majors, she said. Four hundred and twenty students had enrolled, and the graduating class of seniors only has 300 members.

Prof. Walker White, computer science, also said he has noticed an increase in interest in the topic within the College of Arts and Sciences. The major is currently offered in both Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, and a similar growth spurt occurred in the engineering college in the 1990’s, he said.

“What we’re seeing that seems to be very ahistorical is a huge growth in Arts and Sciences,” White said. “We’ve always been a major that’s accessible through the Arts and Sciences, but for whatever reason, a small minority of our class comes from the Arts and Sciences.”

As the department expands its undergraduate reach, Tardos said she believes student interest will continue to grow, and not just for majors. She expressed her hope the University will hire more faculty members so that professors can teach smaller courses, and that the department will begin offering C.S. courses geared towards all students.

“There are many opportunities out there, not just in C.S. companies, but many other professions need people who can understand data and be able to do some computation with it,” Tardos said. “Being able to do some computing is definitely going to be super useful for a well-educated [adult] in the 21st century.”