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Profs Urge Interdisciplinarity in CS Expansion

By Monica C Nesselbush
By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

As Computer Science administrators look to fill 12 new professorships endowed by former Microsoft CEO Steven A. Ballmer ’77, faculty and students in the proliferating program say that it should use the opportunity to build upon Harvard’s liberal arts tradition and expand existing interdisciplinary offerings.

Although not the largest concentration at Harvard, computer science is one of the fastest-growing fields of study here and nationally. Computer science attracted 101 new concentrators this fall alone, bringing the total number of concentrators to 297, compared to last fall’s 253. Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” stands as the highest enrolled course at the College this semester, with 778 undergraduates.

At the same time that the field of study has exploded across higher education, Harvard’s peer institutions have sought to encourage interdisciplinary study between computer science and the humanities or social sciences. This fall, for example, Stanford introduced a program called “CS+X” in which students can pair a CS major with a humanities major. And just last week, Columbia announced that it will offer a course next spring aimed to teach students programming in the context of English, history, or economics.

The Ballmer gift, which is estimated to be around $60 million, will likely give Harvard a chance to explore similar offerings as the sheer number of courses and areas of professorial expertise increase with the new professorships, members of the Computer Science Division say.

Assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and computer science David D. Cox ’00 said that he believes that CS literacy needs to be prioritized going forward for all students alongside numerical and normal literacy. For those not solely dedicated to computer science, he said skills learned in the discipline should be applied to their own fields of study.

“[Computer science's growing stature] puts a large burden on the University to make sure students have these skills for the next century,” Cox said. “The investment the University is making in the field is spot on, and we need to do more.”

Computer Science professor Michael D. Mitzenmacher, a former dean of the division, agreed that with the new professorships and additional resources, Harvard can focus on refining an already “outward facing” CS program to reach more students, though not necessarily with programs like Stanford’s or Columbia’s that explicitly combine two fields.

“We’re not just about being focused inwardly on computer science,” Mitzenmacher said, noting that two years ago somewhere between one third to one half of students in general CS courses were non-concentrators. “We’re focused on being housed in a liberal arts university, taking advantage of all the University’s resources.”

He added, “We haven’t gone through a system of having specific tracks. What we’ve generally tried to have is a flat system with minimal prerequisites so people can come in and take whatever they want and they need.”

Others say that as the number of concentrators in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences continues to grow at the expense of other academic divisions, increased commitment to interdisciplinary work and the attraction of non-concentrators to CS courses will be key to maintaining balance between fields of study.

“It’s going to be a big time of change at the University as people are going to look at computer science,” said Zack A. Chauvin ’17, a computer science concentrator. “What’s going to happen when a liberal arts college has a significant portion who wants to study in SEAS?”

Stanford computer science professor Eric S. Roberts ’73 said that the proliferation of computer science programs at research universities like Harvard and Stanford has “changed...a bit of the balance of a university.”

“For places like Harvard and Stanford, which have very strong liberal arts tradition, building these bridges and allowing students to combine these modalities of study will better maintain the balance within the University,” he said.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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