50 Year Anniversary of Computer Science At Stanford

| May 1, 2015

April 28th 1965 was the year that the world’s first computer science departments were setup at Stanford University. The professors who were involved in the setup would go on to help a pioneering field profoundly affect many aspects of our lives, including through research, culture, and commerce. More recently the department has oversaw huge changes with its approach and curriculum, including topics that dominate now being cyber security, machine learning, and computer vision, amongst other creative fields.

Stanford Computer Science Campus

Stanford Computer Science Campus

Improving Computer Science Takeup

Computer science was first offered at Stanford through the School of Humanities and Sciences, and at the time was independent of mathematics. The link between computer science and other disciplines has been expended with the CS+X initiative. This allows undergraduates to study other core subjects from a variety of choices, in line with their computer science degree. CS+X is meant to be the equivalent of a modern liberal arts education, giving students more choice about how they approach the subject.

50 Year Anniversary

There were a number of panels at the anniversary of the science department that demonstrate ways that Stanford has changed the world, and featured including a colloquium featuring among well known tech start up gurus, including Jerry Yang, a Stanford alum who co founded Yahoo. Although commercially the university has done well in changing the world of computer science, the theme of the evening was “service to the world” that plays an important part of the drive that the research in the science department has.

One of the panels was entitled “Future Challenges” and was a session that allowed researchers such as Professor Dan Boneh, who is an expert in cyber security, discuss issues of privacy and trust. Another panel featured discussions from Assistant Professor Michael Bernstein who specializes in crowdsourcing.

Key Panels Discussed

Much of the day’s events featured around the remembrance and appreciation of the early pioneers that helped build and create the computer and science department. Pioneers like George Forsythe, who first joined Stanford University in 1959 as a math’s professor, and 6 years later led an effort to create the discipline of computer science as its own subject of study. Fond memories were recalled by Gio Wiederhold who is a professor emeritus of the computer science research worked at stanford during the period of Forsythe, and recalled him as a “wonderful leader”

Alex Aiken, who is the Alcatel-Lucent Professor in Communications and Networking and also a chair of computer science at Stanford, commented that the secret sauce of the computer science discipline was the problem solving approach that was taught, known as computational thinking. Computer science teaches a set of skills in it’s curriculum that enables you to take a problem, break it down into a series of steps, and then outline the components of the problem, and how each of the steps can be addressed at as low a cost as possible. This is commonly referred to by engineers as getting the most from the resources you have available.

Stanford – Next 50 Years

At the time of the changes in the computer science department, Professor Hector Garcia Molina was a graduate student at the time, and said that the computational problem solving and thinking skills that he learnt at the time still widely apply today. He stated that although the problems change, and the complexity changes, the plan and the recipes of steps that you need to solve it don’t change. It becomes all about “how efficient you are being” he stated.

Garcia-Molina led one of the panels in the discussion of the challenges that the computer science department faces over the next 50 years. How it can maintain its academic excellence as more and more students opt for learning computer science training, and the industries in the public and private sector seek out more qualified people in this discipline was a topic of discussion.

The Future Of Stanford

The need for more graduates in computer science is accelerating and there is still a gender gap of women in the industry. This is changing though, and you can read more about how here, but the overall belief discussed at many of the panels was that there was a huge skill shortfall in many industries, and the need to create a diversity of minds to create ever more robust solutions to the problems that the world face now and in the next 50 years would be a challenge that the university was willing to step up to an play a key role in.

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