Computer science becomes Stanford's most popular major

  • August 6, 2012

Lisa Krieger
Mercury News Education Reporter

For the first time in Stanford's history, computer science has become the most popular undergraduate major -- a milestone for a school conceived on a farm but now located in the holy land of technology.

The surge in interest is attributed to a job market that values software over Shakespeare -- as well as recent reforms that make entry-level classes exciting and accessible.

"Today's students have grown up using many computing technologies, including Web search engines, social networks and smartphones," said Mehran Sahami, computer science professor and associate chairman of the department's education program.

The computer science major "affords them the opportunity to go from being consumers of computing technology to producers of it, and that's a tremendously powerful transition."

The number of Stanford students specializing in computer science in 2012 trumps those in human biology, a long-standing favorite, 380 to 329, according to a new analysis by the university. Engineering ranks third, with 250 students. Stanford enrolls 6,900, but students don't declare majors until their third year.

A similar phenomenon is seen at UC Berkeley, a historic hotbed of activism where the number of students majoring in electrical engineering and computer sciences now far surpasses those in political science.

But psychology and business are the most popular majors at other Bay Area universities -- UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, San Jose State and Cal State East Bay.

In the humanities' heyday of the mid-60s, more than 1 in 3 Stanford students majored in languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. By 1995, only about 1 in 10 did -- and that number hasn't budged much ever since.

Now one of Stanford's most popular classrooms is a course in creating apps for the iPad and iPhone. There is even a computer music class; that's where the popular MadPad got its start, turning street clamor into soundtracks.

In 2009, Sahami and colleagues rebooted the computer science major, reducing the number of core classes and making it more interdisciplinary, adding elective options like studio art and biology. Following that change, enrollment surged 83 percent in just two years.

They sought to introduce students to the broad reach of computing across many sciences, such as gene-sequencing that reveals the secrets of life and simulations that model climate change.

And while many universities use introductory classes to weed out students, "Stanford's courses are designed as funnels, to bring students into the discipline," Roberts said. "We put the best teachers in front of those (introductory) classrooms."

Stanford helped give birth to such heavyweight companies as Google, Yahoo and Sun Microsystems -- and new technology is now as ubiquitous as sandstone, tile and red sweatshirts.

Computer science student Kayvon Beykpour became a millionaire during his senior year, after the company he co-founded with friends was sold to Blackboard for $4 million.

"We have a passion for building things," he said, in a 2009 interview.

Some gifted Stanford students don't even stay to graduate. Ankit Gupta, for instance, cocreated the Pulse News Reader while at Stanford -- then left to raise $9 million in financing. His app, which allows users to aggregate news from their choice of publications and blogs, has been downloaded 30 million times, and the late Steve Jobs touted it.

"Stanford is the intellectual heart of Silicon Valley. Stanford students quickly come to understand that they should take at least one of the introductory computer science courses, which are very much part of the culture," said Eric Roberts, computer science professor.

The trend bodes well for the future of the valley -- and for companies around the world that seek to bolster their ranks with Stanford graduates.

"For years, the most common reaction I've gotten from industry leaders, both inside and outside the Valley, is that they love Stanford's program -- but that we don't produce nearly enough graduates to meet the demand," Roberts said.

Most popular majors at Bay Area Universities

Stanford

1, Computer science
2. Human biology
3. Engineering
4. Economics
5. Biology

UC Berkeley

1. Electrical engineering and computer science
2. Political science
3. Economics
4. Psychology
5. Business administration

SJSU

1. Psychology
2. Biological sciences
3. Business administration/accounting
4. Business administration/management
5. Kinesiology

Cal State East Bay

1. Business administration
2. Psychology
3. Health sciences
4. Biological science
5. Pre-nursing

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