Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 13, 1997

Computing a Decade

Former dean's hunch
has led to a successful
academic department

Phil Sneiderman
News and Information

Just a decade ago, e-mail was in its infancy, and the World Wide Web had not yet been born. At the time, it was impossible to obtain a Hopkins undergraduate degree in computer science. The field occupied a small niche within a department dedicated largely to electrical engineering.

Some professors argued that, in order to thrive, computer science at Hopkins needed a home of its own. Other faculty members opposed this idea. Why break up one large, healthy department, they asked, to create two smaller, possibly weaker ones? An advisory panel of non-Hopkins researchers also gave the proposal a thumbs-down.

But David VandeLinde, then dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, chose the riskier road. He supported the creation of computer science as an independent department at Hopkins. The university's academic council and administration ultimately agreed, and state officials approved the new program in the spring of 1987. With just four faculty members and a handful of computer science majors, the department was launched.

Today, after completing a first decade on its own, the Department of Computer Science has become one of the busiest academic disciplines on campus.

It now instructs about 1,000 students per semester from both the engineering and arts and sciences schools. Among all the credit hours taught by the School of Engineering alone, between 20 and 25 percent come from Computer Science courses.

Computer science majors now number about 135; another 25 students have designated computer science as their second major. About 120 students have declared computer science as their minor. The figures have been going up 10 to 15 percent annually.

The department's research infrastructure is also getting a financial boost. The National Science Foundation recently agreed to give the Department of Computer Science $1.7 million for new hardware, software and support personnel over the next five years. The grant will allow the Hopkins department to expand its research into cutting-edge areas such as robotic surgery, computer vision, Internet communications, geometric computing and speech recognition.

"The Department of Computer Science is a great success story," said Charles R. Westgate, interim dean of Engineering. "In looking back, VandeLinde made the right choice. The proof is that the department has developed splendidly. We have hired very fine faculty members and have launched some very strong research programs. And they teach more student credit hours than any other department in the engineering school."

Gerald Masson, who has been chairman of the department since its formation, acknowledged that its birth was a difficult one. "There were pros and cons to this," Masson said. "There were people who felt that splitting computer science off into its own department was a bad move for the engineering school.

"But there were enough people who thought it was the only way for the computer science area to develop here. Dean VandeLinde was convinced, and I think rightly so, that a separate Department of Computer Science would bring opportunities to the engineering school that would not otherwise be available."

Over the past decade, the young department has had to keep pace with expensive computer technology that can quickly become obsolete. In 1987, for example, it spent about $300,000 on a huge mainframe computer to control most of its operations. Today, a modern Pentium-based computer in a Hopkins dorm room "would blow that computer away," Masson said. Virtually none of the department's original equipment is still in use.

"In many course areas, I'm sure there are new developments and exciting research going on," he added. "But I can't believe it's happening at the same pace as it is with changes in information technology. So your courses have to change, and your equipment base has to change. You know that before too long you'll probably have to upgrade or replace it."

During its growth spurt, the Department of Computer Science has also had to grapple with an identity problem. The department from which it emerged is now called the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. A common misconception, Masson said, is that his department focuses on computer software, while the so-called "Double-E" researchers concentrate on hardware.

"What our people really look at are 'computer systems,' " he explained. "Computer systems integrate the hardware and the software in ways such that it's difficult to say which one is in control. In a rough way, you could say that electrical engineering is more the 'device' side or the 'circuits-oriented" side. Computer science is more 'systems-oriented.' "

The lines became even blurrier last year when the two departments teamed up to offer a new major called "computer engineering," allowing students to draw on a mix of courses from both departments. This option has proved popular, and 58 Hopkins students have already declared computer engineering as their major.

Because computers now play a key role in so many professions, many students who are not majoring in computer science take courses in the department.

Helen Chiang, a biomedical engineering major from Houston, Texas, said such classes are crucial to success in her field. "All of the technology today uses computers," she said. "I have to have computer skills to work in biomedical engineering."

Even students from the School of Arts and Sciences, including psychology and political science majors, are taking computer courses to improve their employment prospects. An economics major with a strong computer science background, for example, might be more likely to be hired by a large business firm.

Then there are students such as Samuel Carliles of Naples, Fla., a senior majoring in Near Eastern studies.

Carliles knows there are few jobs in his specialty area, Assyriology. But last year he began taking some computer science courses and found them to be easier and more enjoyable than he expected. Carliles is now thinking of looking for work as a computer systems programmer after graduation.

Masson is not surprised by the broad interest in computer science courses. "We probably have had a student from every major at Homewood decide to minor in computer science," he said.

Now entering its second decade, the Department of Computer Science still faces a few challenges. Several tenure-track faculty positions remain vacant because of the fierce competition among universities vying for the top researchers and teachers in the field.

In addition, the department has had to place increased emphasis on security to guard against the few computer savvy students who seek to tamper with electronic files or programs.

Still, Masson remains optimistic that his department will continue to prosper and keep pace with the rapidly changing technology. "There just doesn't seem to be any significant ceiling out there," he said. "If you can do something reasonably well today, in a year from now information technology will almost certainly allow you to do it even better."

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