A computer science department for the 21st century

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Left to right: Joan Feigenbaum, chair of the Department of Computer Science, Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Kyle Vanderlick, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

This story orginally appeared in the 2015-2016 issue of Yale Engineering Magazine.

Once, computer science was something of a niche subject — a line of study that didn’t make much sense to pursue unless computers were going to be your line of work. Now it figures into just about every field.

“It’s quite common nowadays for students to be deeply interested in technology — not for technology’s sake, but in service to other things — such as media, culture, energy, politics, and commerce,” said Prof. Joan Feigenbaum, the Grace Murray Hopper Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science. Accommodating that broader interest, she said, requires broadening the department’s curriculum.

Yale made big steps toward that goal earlier this year with some major developments in computer science. Yale officials announced in March that the department would expand its faculty by more than 25 percent, growing from 20 to 26 professors. At the same time, it became part of the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Two donations, totaling $20 million, made the expansion possible.

T. Kyle Vanderlick, Dean of SEAS, said the developments were necessary in making sure that the university’s computer science department is competitive and designed for the 21st century.

“A strong connection between Computer Science and Engineering is needed for both disciplines to stay vibrant,” Vanderlick said. “Incorporating Computer Science into SEAS will foster our growth and progress, and it means that Yale will continue to compete for the very best students and faculty.”

Enhancing computer science has been an ongoing discussion since President Peter Salovey’s inauguration in 2013. In March, he said that computer science skills “are the means by which we move ideas forward in today’s world.” With the expansion, he said, the university was “acknowledging the vital importance of those skills.”

Until this year, Computer Science was its own freestanding department. That’s not uncommon, but universities are increasingly incorporating computer science into their engineering schools. Vanderlick said that makes sense. Engineering is essentially about solving problems, and the same can be said about computer science.

“At Yale especially, there’s long been a close connection between computer science and SEAS,” she said, adding that the Computer Science Department has six professors that were already affiliated with numerous SEAS departments.

Arthur K. Watson Building, home to the Department of Computer Science.

Separating engineering and computer science was common back when software and hardware were considered two separate components of computing systems. “But that’s not how we think about computers anymore,” Vanderlick said. As computers have become much more sophisticated, hardware and software are so integrated as to be all but inseparable. Developing software requires knowledge of the hardware, and vice versa.

Tamar Gendler said computer science became a top priority for her ever since she was appointed the University’s new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last July. She calls the expansion a “game-changing” step toward building a “world-class Department of Computer Science.”

“I want to ensure that Yale has a computer science department of the caliber that a great university deserves,” Gendler said.

Computer science not just for computer scientists

Jakub Szefer, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said he’s long benefitted from the close relationship between the two entities. “The faculty members and I collaborate frequently, and I advise computer science students on senior projects,” he said. “So I think the boundary has always been very fluid.”

Szefer said students will benefit in a number of ways now that Computer Science is officially part of SEAS. “Rather than Engineering students being on one side and the Computer Science students doing their own thing, it will be easier for everyone to mingle at different events,” he said, adding that it could open doors for them academically. “Now maybe we can attract some of them to, say, electrical engineering or robotics.”

Feigenbaum agrees that the nature of computer scientists’ work makes the move seamless. “When I asked (associate professor of computer science) Daniel Abadi about moving to SEAS, he said, ‘Sure, I consider myself an engineer.’”

But the administrative change also brings some very tangible benefits, she said. Students will have a broader choice of courses and of advisors for research projects. The university will conduct searches for the new faculty positions in the Department of Computer Science over the next few years, bringing the number of ladder faculty members from 20 to 26 — the biggest increase in faculty resources in computer science in more than 30 years. Two of the positions have already been filled, with the hiring of Mahesh Balakrishnan, who started in September, and Mariana Raykova, who starts in January (see profiles of each on pages 21 and 22).

Hiring more faculty members and cooperating more closely with SEAS colleagues means that the department can have multiple faculty members in key areas — that means the department will have more to offer students on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

And working more closely with other SEAS departments, Feigenbaum said, means more hiring possibilities for Computer Science. For instance, Biomedical Engineering does a lot of work with imaging. As part of SEAS, she says, it now makes more sense for her department to look at potential hires specializing in the computational aspects of imaging. “We would not be considering that if we were not a part of SEAS,” she said.

This fall, Yale took another step toward reaching out to non-traditional computer science students by way of a new course offering, CPSC 100. In what Brian Scassellati, professor of computer science and mechanical engineering & materials science, calls a “grand experiment,” the university has joined forces with Harvard on its introductory computer science course, CS50. Since Harvard’s David J. Malan started the course in 2007, it’s been a hugely popular offering. In the Yale-Harvard incarnation, Malan and Scassellati will both give lectures, which will be live-streamed and archived online. To accommodate the hundreds of students expected to enroll, Yale made the unprecedented move of hiring undergraduates to assist with teaching, which includes leading sections and grading papers.

“CS50 really has a way of drawing in students who are not typical Computer Science majors,” said Scassellati, who also leads the Social Robotics Lab. “It’s found a way to take something that has a strong technical and math component, and make it accessible to a very diverse audience.”

This is the kind of effort, Feigenbaum said, that will allow Yale to make a mark in computing well beyond the cubicles at Google or Facebook.

“The Computer Science Department has an essential role in educating leaders — not just in computer science and technology — but in cultural production and in fields such as security policy and media,” she said. “We can teach them the power of computers and networks to improve the world — culturally, economically, and politically.”

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