When it comes to Princeton departments of study, computer science is a new kid on the block — before 1985, it was part of electrical engineering. These days, it’s going through a growth spurt.
The number of seniors majoring in computer science has doubled over the last five years to about 80, according to department chairman Andrew Appel ’81. More than 1,700 students are taking at least one COS course this semester, compared with 1,300 a year ago and 750 four years ago, Professor Brian Kernighan *69 said.
As a freshman, Annie Maslan ’15 took COS 126, “General Computer Science,” thinking that it would be useful. “I was planning to major in chemistry or molecular biology, but after taking COS 126, I started to become more interested in engineering and eventually decided to major in chemical and biological engineering and pursue a certificate in Applications of Computing,” she said. She’s now taking COS 226, “Algorithms and Data Structures.”
Kernighan said the study of computer science has three components: what computers are and how they work; software (writing programs); and how computers interact with each other, such as the way the Internet works.
Maslan said her COS courses have helped her in a most basic way: thinking. “Even in my nontechnical classes and day-to-day life, I can see how my brain has become programmed to think in a more logical way,” she said. “I’m much better at breaking down problems into their simplest components, to solve them from the bottom up.”
What’s driving the interest in computer science?
“I think it started the day Lehman Brothers collapsed,” Appel said, referring to the bankruptcy filing of the global financial-services firm in 2008 and a resulting retrenchment in Wall Street employment. The 2010 release of the film The Social Network provided another boost. And job prospects are strong: A computer science graduate today might attract a starting salary of $100,000, Kernighan said.
Max Botstein ’14, a history major, has taken a few computer science courses, beginning with COS 126 as a freshman. “I thought it was impossible to be an informed citizen without knowing anything about computers,” Botstein said.
COS 126, according to the University, enrolls about 430 students — making it one of Princeton’s most popular courses.
“I ultimately chose to major in computer science because I loved so many different science avenues and felt that computer science would be playing a key role in cutting-edge research in virtually all of them,” said Katie Stouffer ’13, who is active with Princeton Women in Computer Science.
Kernighan had a similar view. “Computer science is so incredibly applicable,” he said. “You can’t do much without computing these days.”
A major challenge for the department is trying to keep up with its growth, according to Appel and Kernighan.
The department has about 40 faculty members, including 30 tenure-track positions and 10 lecturers, Appel said. He’d like to see another 10 tenure-track positions, plus more space to teach in. The computer science building, which opened in 1989, was designed for half the faculty it houses, he said.
“We’re really in danger of falling out of the top group of computer science departments in the world,” Appel said. In 2012, U.S. News & World Report ranked Princeton’s computer science department No. 6 in the country and No. 10 in the world.
Neither Appel nor Kernighan expects computer science growth at Princeton to continue at the same rate. “Every student can’t be a computer science major,” Appel said.
But the numbers show that the image of computer science as the province of nerds is long over. “Computer science is the core of the way social interaction works, which is the least nerdy thing,” Appel said. “Computer science has a real future as a scholarly discipline that’s important to society.”