Professor John Hopcroft, computer science.

Professor John Hopcroft, computer science.

July 8, 2020

How an Electrical Engineer Molded Computer Science At Cornell and Beyond

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After a 53-year long career at Cornell spent shaping the field of computer science and its disciples, Prof. John Hopcroft delivered his final lecture to an empty lecture hall on April 29.

It was not how he envisioned his last hurrah.

“It’s fundamentally different to teach a hundred students when they’re physically there and you can interact with them, and when you’re giving a lecture to an empty hall and simply being videotaped,” Hopcroft said in an interview with The Sun.

Hopcroft’s illustrious reign over computer science research and education began with his own teachers, who showed him what it meant to be a good educator.

“[Throughout my education] there were a number of faculty who really cared about my learning, and my being successful,” Hopcroft said. “They had a big impact on me, and I wanted to have that kind of impact on others.”

After earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1964, Hopcroft carried these values with him to a three-year long professorship at Princeton University. But his focus shifted from electrical engineering to computer science.

Amid the growing importance of computers and lack of computer science education programs in the mid 1960s, Hopcroft stumbled into teaching theoretical courses in computing.

Though initially hired for his skills in electrical engineering, Hopcroft was asked to use his engineering background to create his own computer science course so Princeton could keep its education up to par in a rapidly developing technological world. Hopcroft’s experience at Princeton led to his subsequent hiring at Cornell, where he had a hand in building a world-class computer science department.

“It wasn’t that important to me which direction I went into. I just wanted to teach and do research. And I was just lucky — it was simply because I happened to be there when computer science was just starting,” Hopcroft said. “That made me one of the world’s first computer scientists. So a lot of opportunities came to me at a very early age.”

As room-sized mainframe computers still occupied the market, Hopcroft soon pioneered methods to evaluate the quality of computer programs. This led to a brand-new field of computer science called algorithms — a defined sequence of instructions used to perform a computation. This development allowed for programmers to design optimal programs based on a set of mathematical criteria, rather than writing new code for every circumstance.

His work in creating the field of algorithms earned Hopcroft the Turing Award in 1986, the highest possible distinction for a computer scientist and the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Outside of his groundbreaking research in computer science, Hopcroft spent much of his career devoted to improving global education. In one of his projects, Hopcroft spearheaded the improvement of university education in China.

Hopcroft explained that around 30 years ago, parents in China realized the necessity of their children having a college education in order to get well-paying jobs, causing a sharp boom in university enrollment in China. However, a newly stabilized Chinese government scrambled to meet these demands.

In an attempt to improve Chinese universities’ international rankings, the government prioritized research funding and publications — which came at the expense of education quality, according to Hopcroft. This quality of education, determined mainly by a university’s faculty, declined as the government hired faculty based on their research experience rather than their ability to teach undergraduate students.

To improve Chinese universities, the Premier of China founded an international advisory board that evaluated the presidents and educational programs of other top universities around the world. Hopcroft served as a chair for this advisory board, working closely with the Premier to understand the fundamental aspects of computer science instruction and curricula that could be implemented in China.

Hopcroft’s strides in improving education inspired him to conduct research in early childhood education, where he discovered the “tremendous” role that a child’s first two years of life has in determining their future career. His findings motivated him to work with the National Academy of Sciences, helping shape science education in the U.S.

In 1992, Hopcroft was also appointed to the National Science Board under President George H.W. Bush to oversee the funding of basic science research and education in the U.S. During his term, Hopcroft journeyed to Antarctica to manage U.S. science researchers at the South Pole and oversaw efforts to rebuild a research station there.

Despite his contributions to global science research and education, Hopcroft never lost sight of his devotion to influencing his own students at Cornell. For Sharon Li Ph.D. ’17, Hopcroft’s style of research and mentoring were invaluable in leading her to her own research journey in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“He is the most disciplined professor I have worked with,” Li said. “Every morning he would start working in Gates Hall around 9 o’clock, or even before that. And he came earlier than many other students who worked in the same building, even [the day] after international flights.”

Throughout her time working with Hopcroft, Li appreciated how Hopcroft used his position in academia to impact his students in a meaningful way. Now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, Li plans to carry the values she learned from Hopcroft throughout her academic career.

“He encouraged his students to think ahead,” Li said. “That long-term thinking [taught] me to position myself and not rush to produce short-term research outcomes, and instead focus on the big fundamental problems.

When advising students on their future careers, Hopcroft takes a page out of his own book — drawing from his own experiences in sculpting the once-emerging field of computer science.

“One of the things I tell students today is [to] pick a new direction. The world is changing. When there’s change, there is real opportunity,” Hopcroft said.