Like most universities in the U.S., Yale awards more computer science degrees to men than women. Indicative of the so-called “leaky pipeline,” which describes the phenomenon in which women drop out of educational programs in STEM fields, this gender imbalance has long been a source of concern for Yale.
But the undergraduate organization FloatYale aims to be part of the solution to this problem.
According to its website, Float’s mission is to empower, inspire and celebrate women in computer science. Founded in January 2014 by Christine Hong ’15 and Victoria Nielsen ’16, Float promotes gender minorities in computer science through a mentorship program, workshops, speakers and an annual hackathon.
Hong said that her motivation for starting the organization was to create a support network for women in computer science — something that previously hadn’t been available to students at Yale. Additionally, she hoped the organization would be proactive in teaching practical skills, such as web development.
Current president Payal Modi ’17 said that while the organization is aimed at promoting women and gender diversity in computer science, the organization’s events are open to all genders.
“Including men in the conversation is important,” Modi said. “While it is important to have spaces that are gender- and minority-specific, it is important to include them in the picture and help them understand the things they can do to help and increase awareness.”
Others also expressed the necessity of having support networks for women. Six female computer science majors interviewed said that issues relating to gender diversity become obvious during office hours, as well as while forming project groups in higher-level classes. Several added, however, that professors in the department have become cognizant of diversity issues and are making a concerted effort to address them.
Although gender diversity has always been a priority within Yale’s Computer Science Department, discussion around this issue has occurred only relatively recently, according to computer science professor Holly Rushmeier.
“We don’t have a coherent plan [for diversity] yet because prior to 2008, this wasn’t even a thing,” Rushmeier said. “Our major was tiny with a graduating class of 15 people. Then, the problem with the pipeline was that we were trying to get anybody in the pipeline.”
Rushmeier attributed the sudden surge in interest in computer science during the last decade to a variety of factors, including the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Facebook, and “The Social Network” film. She added that computer science departments around the world are overwhelmed all of a sudden by the number of majors.
Last semester, Float hosted its first town hall meeting. According to Modi, last semester’s meeting largely consisted of discussion and the group plans on hosting one town hall meeting every semester.
“Float did a great contribution by having the town hall last spring,” Rushmeier said. “It raised issues [the Computer Science Department] wasn’t aware of — the sorts of things that were making people uncomfortable. There were individual anecdotes that people were not aware of. It hadn’t occurred to us that this was affecting some populations differently and discouraging some people.”
Most recently, Float hosted a dinner for their mentorship program, in which upperclassmen computer science majors were paired with underclassmen mentees.
Sonia Gadre ’20, a Float mentee from Lexington, Kentucky, said she joined the program to find a community of people, adding that sometimes computer science can be intimidating in the beginning.
Jessica Pancer ’17, Gadre’s mentor, said that she originally joined Float for moral support in computer science. Pancer is also the founder of Women of 323, a group she created for female classmates in CPSC 323, a high-level computer science course.
Rushmeier said that last year’s events surrounding race and inclusion on campus raised everyone’s awareness about diversity. She added that there have been many conversations regarding the progress of the department with respect to these goals, as well as what else can be done.
The Computer Science Department is committed to diversity in both students and faculty, Rushmeier said. Currently, they are putting energy into hiring a diverse faculty and addressing a shortage in graduate students.
“There’s the perennial problem of the graduate student population and faculty recruiting. It’s not choosing the diverse people from the applicant pool, it’s getting applicants in the first place,” Rushmeier said. “We have to work hard to make it known to the people we want to apply, ‘Hey, Yale is here, and we want you to come to graduate school here, and we want to hire you.’”
Float will host its second town hall meeting on Nov. 4 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Last year, only a handful of students represented Yale at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual conference celebrating women in technology. This year, however, upward of 30 Yale students attended as a result of increased funding from Yale’s Department of Computer Science.
The conference, which according to its website is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, is produced by the Anita Borg Institute — a social enterprise aimed at promoting women in technology. Its mission is to highlight the contributions of women to computing by convening the field’s women leaders. For three days last week, college students from across the world traveled to Houston, where they networked with leaders from industry, government and academia. According to the schedule of events, offerings were diverse, ranging from presentations on data science and social entrepreneurship to computer science career fairs.
The conference, however, comes with a hefty price tag. According to Payal Modi ’17, President of FloatYale, a student organization aimed to promote women and gender minorities in computer science, Grace Hopper normally costs approximately $1,200 per person.
“It was empowering, particularly as a black woman, to go to a conference where there are a hundred, two hundred black women in one room,” said Saran Morgan ’18, a computer science major. “It was super empowering and inspiring, and I got the feeling where people were okay to admit their faults, their struggles, and at the same time be able to celebrate their successes.”
Computer science professor Holly Rushmeier said that this year, the students who attended the conference sought out funding from a variety of different sources, adding that the department was allotted $36,000 a year to send students to Grace Hopper. According to Rushmeier, this funding came from a variety of sources including the offices of the University provost, the dean of Yale College and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This funding will be renewed every year for two more years, she added.
“Approximately 25 [students] were funded through this money, and then [FloatYale] got additional funding of their own,” Rushmeier said. “Then, various students applied directly to the Anita Borg Institute, and they awarded scholarships to go to the conference through that process.”
According to Rushmeier, the department had roughly $5,000 in funding to sponsor students for the conference last year. However, because registration for Grace Hopper begins at the end of the summer, by the time the department learned of the funding, the conference was already sold out. The only students who were able to take advantage of the funding last year, therefore, were those who had been waitlisted for the conference.
Students interviewed said that attending the conference had a tremendous impact on both their personal lives and early careers.
“It was empowering to see everyone there, because usually you don’t see such large ratios of women, and that sometimes leads people to question if you have a future [in computer science],” said Summer Wu ’18, a computer science major. Wu received funding to attend last year through Google, but was sponsored through Capital One this year.
Other students spoke of experiencing a renewed commitment to computer science after attending the conference.
Emon Datta ’18 said she appreciated hearing from women who are interested in the social implications of technology, which, she said, the tech industry hasn’t historically focused on.
“I’m someone who’s always wanted to go into STEM and not [Computer Science] specifically, so it’s not something that changed ideas of what I want to do in the future,” Datta said. “But it renewed my commitment in computer science, and I got to see powerful role models who look like me.”
Rushmeier said that looking forward to next year, she is optimistic about the availability of funding. Now that a constant source of funding for the next two years is in place, the department can buy bulk registration and accommodation in advance, she added.
In selecting students to sponsor, Rushmeier said she did so by seniority because this was the most easily applied and equitable measure. Seniors and juniors were given priority, and previous computer science courses were also considered. She added that for the next iteration of Grace Hopper, she will again prioritize seniority while selecting students, although students who have already attended will be given lower priority.
Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was founded in 1994.
Clarification, Oct. 28: A previous version of this article was ambiguous regarding the source of Summer Wu’s funding to attend the Grace Hopper conference. While Wu received funding to attend Grace Hopper last year through Google, she was sponsored through Capital One this year.
You might not know it, but a whole generation of startups is taking root at Yale. They’re developing apps for Android, the Google smartphone operating system, and have plans to meet with venture capitalists early next semester. With any luck, one of them will develop into the Next Big Thing, and Yale will finally have the tech-genius billionaire alumnus it’s been waiting for.
But before they get any funding, these fledgling companies will all get something else: a grade.
This is all taking place within Professor Daniel Abadi’s reimagined “Introduction to Programming” class, CPSC 112. After teaching it for years using only Java, Abadi has redesigned the syllabus around a group app development project meant to simulate launching a tech startup. He’s also worked with School of Management Professor Kyle Jensen to create an entirely new course, CPSC 113: “Programming and Entrepreneurship,” to be offered in the spring as an extension of CPSC 112. And while “Introduction to Programming” will retain its focus on computer science basics, its revamped curriculum and the addition of CPSC 113 have one goal.
“The purpose of the course is to better enable our students to go off and create the next Facebook,” says Jensen.
Student interest in practical computer knowledge and startup culture has existed at Yale for years, as shown by organizations like HackYale and Y-Hack. But Yale’s Computer Science department has long been known for focusing on theory rather than application. The entrepreneurial-minded revamp of CPSC 112 and the invention of CPSC 113 are a response to that demand. The question remains, though: Can a liberal arts education teach you to get rich quick?
The narrative surrounding computer science at Yale has been of a department wary of classes focused on entrepreneurship rather than academics. The department’s consistent refusal to accept course credit for HackYale, a student organization teaching programming basics and web design, has only contributed to that.
According to Alex Reinking ’16, who has taught for HackYale in the past, “The Computer Science Department has been reluctant to expand into things that aren’t computer science explicitly.”
Abadi agrees that some faculty were skeptical of moving away from pure fundamentals, but he specifies that the new course isn’t the result of a power shift within the department. Instead, he says there was simply no one willing to teach it.
Until Abadi came along, that is. As a Ph.D. student at MIT, Abadi worked part time on tech startups VoltDB and Vertica, the latter of which Hewlett-Packard bought for $350 million in 2011. At Yale, he founded Hadapt, a database-management startup that Teradata bought this July. Abadi says he doesn’t think anyone else in Yale’s computer science department has founded startups on a similar scale.
Though he had taught more theoretically based classes including CPSC 112 for several years, this summer, he decided to bring his startup experience into the class. Having gotten tenure last spring, he felt ready to try something more adventurous. After selling Hadapt in July, he took his proposal for the new CPSC 112-113 program to department chair Joan Feigenbaum and to James Aspnes, the DUS. Both liked the idea — “there wasn’t any kind of battle or anything,” Abadi says — and the administration approved the new course design in only two days. Abadi took the quick turnaround as a sign of enthusiasm from Woodbridge Hall, as did Feigenbaum.
“In general, the administration has been very eager for shaking things up a bit in computer science,” she says. “This, they see as a very good example of shaking things up, and I do too.”
According to Feigenbaum, Yale’s Computer Science Department is in the midst of a sea change, one that’s also being felt around the Ivies and the country.
Soaring enrollment in Yale’s Computer Science courses is well documented; Feigenbaum says her department is the “biggest of the small majors,” and its enrollment numbers could begin to rival those of academic mainstays like English or Econ during her tenure as chair.
Less obvious is the change not just in the numbers but the nature of Yale’s computer science students. Feigenbaum says that while the traditional CS major had learned to program before arriving at Yale and planned to continue doing so, the department now has to grapple with widely varying skill levels, backgrounds and intentions among its students.
“We have been, traditionally, a very narrow and deep major,” but now, she says, “We may want to broaden.” One possibility would be separate tracks for career computer scientists — what Feigenbaum calls the “geekus maximus” track — and those who want to learn computer science but do something else as a career.
Abadi’s course is the first step towards a broader focus, as the department adjusts to new demographics and new sources of interest. Abadi points out that the department’s last three hires, including himself, have all been “more on the applied side of things.” He attributes this to a deliberate strategy, and Aspnes agrees, saying that the new faculty addressed Yale’s traditional weakness in applied teaching rather than fundamentals.
As novel as the recent surge in interest might appear, computer science has been here before. It happened in the 1980s, when personal computers were still a novelty, and then again in the late 1990s during the dot-com boom. Yale students’ interest in the discipline has tracked those trends: Enrollment in “Intro to Programming” fell from 143 in the spring 2000 to 67 in spring 2002, after the dot-com bubble popped .
Feigenbaum thinks that this time, the increase in interest will be more sustained: Computers are a bigger part of everyday life than ever before. But the pitch for this new course isn’t technological literacy — it’s marketability. Computer Science has always presented a clearer career path than other majors — “We are educating people who are prepared to be professional computer scientists,” Feigenbaum says — and with the job market slow but the tech industry booming, students are looking to the discipline to learn marketable skills.
But professors and students alike are adamant that the immediate applicability of computer science, and specifically of hands-on classes like CPSC 112, isn’t at odds with a traditional liberal arts education.
“There has long been at Harvard, and I presume at Yale as well, this assumption that a liberal arts education is by definition not practical,” says David Malan, who teaches Harvard’s famous CS50 course, a hands-on introduction to computer science and programming. But he doesn’t think that’s necessarily true.
Feigenbaum agrees, questioning the notion that practical knowledge and lofty theory are even distinct from each other. Knowledge with real-world implications, she says, can be intellectually engaging.
Rafi Khan ’15, HackYale’s co-director, adds that computer science fits that description because “it’s exposing you to a new way of thinking, and expanding your mind in that way.”
Malan is careful to specify that his course isn’t just about practicality, though. Because while practicality itself isn’t at odds with the liberal arts, a course prioritizing technical skills over theoretical understanding might be. So while CS50 aims to teach students concrete skills, it also aims at understanding, according to Malan.
“The reality,” he says, “is that you can use a tool without knowing how it works.”
But that’s not why you go to Yale or Harvard. And while practical computer science classes teach real-world skills, teaching students how to monetize those skills is something else entirely. Those involved with the course acknowledge the potential tension.
“The real question is not, ‘Is there something wrong with acquiring knowledge that has practical value?’” says Feigenbaum. “The real potential controversy here is that we’re deliberately describing the course in terms of startup companies and venture capital and pitching a business plan.” One could ask, she says, “Why would you say any of that in an undergraduate course?”
For one thing, Feigenbaum says, that’s what students want to hear. Tech startups features prominently on social media and in popular culture, and with CPSC 112, she hopes the department can tap into that.
Aspnes says he didn’t consider the role of money in the course when approving it, while Jensen, the professor for 113, says he doesn’t worry that the business aspect of the class will conflict with academic values.
“The ventures people work on will embody their values,” he says, adding that a liberal arts education can actually be a competitive advantage for startups facing competition from tech-first schools like MIT.
Abadi says he will make sure to say “fake money” and “fake stock” when discussing that part of the syllabus. Even so, “It may be a little stressful for some of the students; the social pressure may get intense. I don’t know what’s going to happen — obviously, it’s an experiment. If bad things happen, we can change the rules on the fly if need be.”
But entrepreneurial spirit is part of the classes’ new identities, try as Abadi might to model a benign version of the business world.
Marc Bielas ’18, for one, says he wouldn’t have taken the class if not for the new angle. The business potential of learning computer science has always intrigued him, he says. But, he continues, “I’ve never had the technical skills to create any of the applications I had thought of.”
Bielas says he likes the focus on turning ideas into profit. Undergrads will be in the workforce soon, he explains, and exposure to the business world can’t hurt. Like its designers, he sees CPSC 112 as a step towards Zuckerberg-like billionaire tech dropouts — something he thinks Yale lacks.
And despite her own reservations and others’, Feigenbaum is at peace with the focus on money and business.
“Whether there’s something inherently wrong with thinking about pitching or selling or the economic and business aspect of it, in an undergraduate course — I don’t think so,” she says, pointing out that Yale alumni in tech and other fields often go on to start businesses. But, she qualifies, “I guess the danger might be that some kids actually think there’s a good chance that they can go directly from writing one app to having a successful business. That might be a bit unrealistic.”
That thought, however, is part of what’s driving Yalies’ new enthusiasm for computer science. While the new 112 course will still focus on fundamentals despite its new structure, some students want immediate results.
Those sorts of students make up much of HackYale’s enrollment, and Khan acknowledges that HackYale’s courses “skip over” some fundamentals in order to get students’ ideas online as fast as possible. The group’s founders didn’t plan to launch students towards multi-million dollar IPOs, but some nonetheless see the program as the first step along the way.
“Oftentimes people come to us with startup ideas that they’re not able to implement themselves,” says Reinking. “That’s a really common reason.”
And according to Khan, that ordering of priorities contributed to the department’s initial hesitation to implement a more practical, HackYale-type course. Bay Gross ’13, HackYale’s founder, said in an email that while the department was receptive to the idea, he added that they were “perhaps overly cautious” in embracing what they thought might be a trend lacking in educational value and rigor. And even if the addition of a class like Abadi’s is a step towards a more practical education, Feigenbaum says the department will never teach students how to use computers without understanding how they work.
“The particular languages, they come and go,” says Abadi. “But the fundamentals, they’ve been around for 30, 40 years, and they’re not going anywhere.”
If all anyone did was think about commercializing their inventions, says Feigenbaum, no one would be able to invent anything. “I hope they understand,” she adds, “that they’re not going to get rich quick without putting in work.”
Professor Dana Angluin’s office on the fourth floor of Arthur K. Watson Hall, the home of the Computer Science Department, is covered in graphs. One, which is pinned to the outside of the doorway, lists the enrollment numbers for the major’s introductory-level lectures. The color-coded bars rocket upward as the graph approaches the present.
This surge in interest might explain why the average Yale undergraduate has received several campuswide emails mentioning “hackathons” and “HackYale.” According to the Yale College Council, today is the first day of Tech Month, an initiative meant to bring the campus’s programming scene to the fore.
It has been a long time coming, but now, the signs are clear that more and more Yalies are learning to scan lines of code in addition to lines of verse. In the spring of 2010, 28 students were enrolled in “Introduction to Programming”; three years later, 187 students squeeze into the lecture hall. This semester the number of applicants for HackYale, a student-run course that teaches practical programming basics, was around 250 for about 50 coveted spots in the capped lecture.
In response to such record interest in computer science, members and supporters of Yale’s tech community have suggested turning HackYale into an official college course. In the process, students have cited the example of similar practical lectures courses taught at Harvard, Stanford and Penn.
But there are growing pains. The computer science major has had roughly the same number of faculty members for the past three decades. Now, with increasing enrollment, professors have struggled to keep up. Classes lack sufficient numbers of teaching assistants for their size, and without the extra help, professors cannot meet the needs of every student.
Despite University interest in expanding tech-related initiatives on campus, students, faculty and administrators have pointed out that the practical instruction required for this boom seems incompatible with Yale’s liberal arts mission. In computer science courses, Yale’s faculty is known to emphasize concepts. There are no lessons on how to build the app that will make you rich. The College is, after all, more well-known for DS than it is for CS.
But most people involved in Yale’s tech community say that graduates can find success in this ever-evolving field on their own terms. The University may never churn out programmers or engineers like MIT or Stanford. But as pointed out by members of HackYale and Yale BootUp, an organization that sponsors events for campus programmers, the liberal arts pedigree isn’t always a drawback. Computers can be made to crunch the numbers behind the big questions: the political science major who builds a program to analyze AIDS rates in Africa, the art major who programs panels of LEDs, one node at a time.
Tech at Yale is here; it has been for several years. The challenge is finding a space for it to stay, and figuring out whether there’s enough room in the University’s old stone walls for both theory and practice.
The Source Code
It’s easy to fantasize that coding in college means scribbling on your dorm room window at 3 a.m. while your suitemates get drunk and Trent Reznor’s electronic score blares in the background.
As put by Stanley Eisenstat, the director of undergraduate studies for the Computer Science Department, many fledgling programmers are inspired by stories like those shown in the movie “The Social Network,” about Mark Zuckerberg and others who became billionaires by starting a company in college.
Others cite stories closer to campus. Last year, Yale bought the license to Yale BlueBook from Jared Shenson ’12 and Charlie Croom ’12, the two students who designed the now-ubiquitous course database. Croom currently works for Twitter.
“[Computer science now] is cool, which hasn’t always been the case,” said Angluin, who taught “Introduction to Computer Science” in the fall.
You know what else is cool? A billion dollars.
Throughout his time at Yale, Max Uhlenhuth ’12 developed software to help forestry companies more efficiently manage their inventories. These efforts laid the foundation for the company he co-founded, SilviaTerra. In 2012, Forbes magazine named Uhlenhuth an “All-Star Student Entrepreneur” and reports that Uhlenhuth estimates that his company will pull in more than $3 million this upcoming year.
Uhlenhuth, however, saw tech-savviness as necessary for more than just big payouts.
“One of the skills that a Renaissance person needs to have in 2013 is how to interact with this digital world,” he said.
This perspective is understandable, as coded products, from JSTOR to Snapchat, have become inseparable from college life, and Angluin echoed this sentiment.
“In a terrible economy, tech hiring is a bright spot,” she said, commenting on recent employment statistics. But, financial concerns aside, “[students] expect to know how to use the things they use in life.”
Despite the intense competition, HackYale does not pander to the experienced programmer. The vast majority of its students have never coded before. Only 20 to 30 percent of the students in each of the two 25-person sections tend to be computer science majors. In addition, the proliferation of online programming guides has made the coding world more accessible, said Yale BootUp President Aayush Upadhyay ’14.
“You can just Google ‘How do I build a web app?’ and the first 10 links are all incredibly informative,” he said. “They assume you know nothing and they just take you step-by-step, and you build an entire thing that works and it looks nice.”
Upadhyay also mentioned that Yale’s recent effort to increase STEM enrollment could promote a culture of innovation that will come to feed itself, even if it’s not destined to dominate campus life.
Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said that the economy has driven a large part of the rise in technical and entrepreneurial interest at Yale in recent years. After a visit to Silicon Valley earlier this week, Girvin confirmed that the tech industry shows very few scars from the recent recession.
A cultural shift may also underlie this change. Girvin pointed out that Yale’s quantitatively minded have begun to resist the siren song of the financial sector after graduation.
“I’m not sure [these finance positions] led to very fulfilling lives or to making a difference in the world,” he said. “And I think there has been a national swing back towards science, engineering and computer science for those people.”
As the demand rises for a more technical kind of education, Yale’s resources might not be ready to properly face the changing times.
“Yale’s [Computer Science] Department is undersized compared to other institutions,” Angluin said. Yale’s computer science faculty, according to Angluin, has been the same size for the last 25 years. “Now that the Admissions Office has presented us with more students, that will have to change.”
The problem? According to professor Eisenstat, who has been on the faculty for all 25 of those years and more, “we don’t control the purse strings.”
As noted by both Eisenstat and Angluin, Yale’s peer institutions — especially Harvard, Stanford and Penn — have pumped money into their computer science departments in recent years. Famously, Harvard reinvented its introductory programming lecture, CS50, in order to cater to a wider swath of the student body. In 2011, over 600 students had enrolled in the course, which employed two multimedia producers to record every lecture.
“It has a very odd design,” said Angluin of CS50, commenting that it needs “rafts and rafts” of committed and paid undergraduate teaching assistants to make it work. Yale’s computer science faculty, which is currently experiencing difficulty having professors work one-on-one with students for senior projects, just doesn’t have the manpower for that kind of course offering.
Reneau-Wedeen said that enrollment in many computer science courses has tripled in recent years. The department has also struggled to find enough qualified teaching fellows; approximately 70 students and only one teaching assistant formed part of an artificial intelligence course taught last fall.
“We have to sort of swallow a tiny bit of a bitter pill, ” Reneau-Wedeen said. “There is a little bit less attention per computer science student right now. But you have to imagine that the administration notices the increase in demand and will adjust accordingly.”
Staffing concerns, however, have proven to be a problem for members of Yale’s tech community, many of whom see Yale’s lack of a practical programming lecture as a sign of lagging administrative support.
“I don’t feel that [the administration has] detracted from anything, but I also don’t think they have contributed too much either,” said Upadhyay. “I think it’s been very student-led, whatever tech initiatives we have seen here.”
Is Hacking a Liberal Art?
Does the stereotypical Yale student code? Would he spend hours, even days, glued to a screen, out of sight of the University’s Gothic buildings? Would alumni scoff at the idea of a course that teaches students how to build a website, and not simply how to think about one?
“Yale sees itself as very much a liberal arts place,” Uhlenhuth said. “[It] doesn’t want to become a trade school.”
To that end, Yale’s Computer Science Department is designed to give students a strong background in theory. Up until a few years ago, “Introduction to Programming” taught students Scheme, a programming language that Uhlenhuth said is infamous among programmers — while it is good for teaching theory, it’s a “huge pain in the ass” to build anything with.
Because of the department’s history, the proposal outlining a for-credit version of HackYale potentially faces more fundamental trouble than a lack of funding and a dearth of TAs and student input. Girvin said that while he could imagine engineering departments embracing a course like one modeled after Harvard’s CS50, he expressed doubt that the computer science program would be as receptive.
“My impression is that [our department] views that kind of course as separate from their academic mission,” he said.
Indeed, Angluin also believes that computer science at Yale is designed to be something more “fundamental.” According to professor Eisenstat, this focus on adaptability will serve majors well in the constantly changing technological world.
This measure of well-roundedness, however, does not necessarily translate as well into the business world.
“They don’t even recruit at Yale for Twitter,” Croom said. Yale graduates like Croom do work in Silicon Valley, but the road to get there is not as well-worn as those in peer schools.
Because of this, it’s easy to see Yale’s lack of a tech pipeline as a problem, especially for high school students who see college as a stepping stone to career goals.
Rafi Khan ’15 does not think Yale is particularly known as being a tech school. Khan placed third in the App Challenge last year for Screw Me Yale, which helps students pair off their roommates for residential college dances.
But, as Khan said, that perception can change, and not in a way that threatens the University’s core appeal. Indeed, the scene of students spending time in a hackathon, tinkering with code for hours with little more training than HackYale, is perhaps quintessentially Yale. For better or for worse, the College’s focus on broad-based education has defined the tech lives of its students.
“You are just not going to compete with the hard-core MIT guys in raw computer science,” said Uhlenhuth. “But you can eat their lunch in computer science plus x.”
The fusion of technical skills with a liberal arts background, School of Engineering Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski said, gives Yale students a competitive advantage, especially when compared to graduates of a more technical school.
The new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design aims to provide a meeting and working space for students of all majors. It now houses the HackYale classes, fulfilling the center’s mission to host that unique blend of technical knowledge with liberal arts breadth. As of the start of this term, fewer than half of the center’s members planned on majoring in one of the STEM fields. The CEID counts among its 485 official members 59 students at the School of Management, 26 economics students and 16 architecture students.
“People in your generation are not going to have one job at General Motors for the rest of their career, they are going to do 12 different things,” Girvin said. “The purpose of your Yale education is in part just to learn how to learn and to keep moving as the world changes around us.”
Building a Framework
“We don’t want to keep starting from scratch,” explained YCC President John Gonzalez ’14, commenting on a proposal to allow HackYale to be taught for course credit.
Yalies have tried to make HackYale a for-credit course almost since its founding in the fall of 2011. Last year, the YCC helped propose a course based on the HackYale model. The proposal fell through, however, because it lacked sufficient input from students and faculty in the Computer Science Department. The faculty felt that any plan would need to propose a legitimate computer science course and not merely a vocational one, Upadhyay said.
This year, Upadhyay hopes to finalize a plan by the end of February after consulting with computer science majors and professors.
Given the demand for more computer science professors in general, Upadhyay added, Yale should bring in faculty to teach the class. Upadhyay said that President-elect Peter Salovey is “really interested” in bringing this type of course to Yale.
Salovey wrote in a Tuesday email that he is pleased that a greater number of students are enrolling in introductory computer science courses. But the ultimate decision, he said, of whether to offer a course similar to HackYale for credit, rests with the faculty.
“I hope we can provide even more opportunities of this kind,” he added.
Students hope to capitalize on Salovey’s sentiment. Gonzalez mentioned that, on the YCC’s upcoming “Salovation Report” (a list of recommendations for the President-elect), many of the proposals would involve supporting student innovation.
“I campaigned on applicable tech,” Gonzalez said.
Tech Month is the result of that campaign. The event kicks off with a 12-hour mini-hackathon this Saturday. While providing some time for programmers to come together, share expertise and delight in snacks, the hackathon also marks the official start of the YCC’s App Challenge. Past winners, including events app Roammeo, Yale BlueBook, and One Button Wenzel, have all walked away with the hefty $1,000 prize.
“The app challenge is the biggest win I’ve seen at Yale,” said Croom, the Yale BlueBook co-creator and Twitter employee. Croom is one of many returning to Yale for “tech talks” later this month and will be speaking in association with TEDxYale and Yale BootUp.
The last weekend of February will feature a full, 24-hour hackathon sponsored by numerous tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
Will the Bubble Pop?
From 2000 to 2001, the price of Amazon stock fell from $107 to $7 per share. Shares of Cisco fell a similarly frightening 86 percent. The effects of the dot-com bust were mirrored in Yale’s course enrollment numbers: in spring 2000, 143 students were enrolled in Yale’s intro programming class; in spring 2002, the number fell to 67.
2013 is, of course, a different time, but even with recent success stories, the tech industry has yet to prove its staying power, at Yale or otherwise.
Even HackYale Director Reneau-Wedeen said there is no way of knowing whether the booming tech culture that we live in today will fade as it did 10 years ago. But he has strong hope that the burgeoning interest in technology and entrepreneurship at Yale is here for the long haul.
“It’s not just about getting jobs,” he explained. “It’s extremely intellectually interesting, stimulating, collaborative, and it relates to all fields on study.”
Most importantly, Reneau-Wedeen said, every group involved, from HackYale to Yale BootUp to the YCC is working toward a common goal — having a positive influence on the Yale experience. And from this endeavor, each organization contributes unique strengths.
Yale BootUp brings in speakers, organizes hackathons and other social coding events. HackYale recruits student-teachers to instruct other Yalies how to code. The Student Technology Collaborative taught a course last fall on the programming language Ruby on Rails. The Computer Science Department continues to provide theoretical foundations. The YCC promotes their own technology initiatives as well as spreading the word about others.
“It’s very mutually symbiotic from everyone,” Reneau-Wedeen concluded. “I think that’s going to be necessary in order to make this something that lasts.”
This level of energy comes at a very important time for Yale. With the selection of a new president and provost, the University has been given a chance to consider on its own identity.
“Our vision of Yale is in flux,” said Gonzalez, pointing out not only that the President-elect’s administration will “decide how much money the Computer Science Department gets,” but also how much support will be given to the tech community in general.
What will this momentum lead to? According to Khan, “it’s foolish to speculate. What will happen is what the students decide.” Yale may still be more famous for producing people who campaign for office than people who code, but the coders are here, and they’re not about leave.
Professor Angluin agreed. When asked if she thinks the numbers of Yale students interested in technology will continue to grow, she merely pointed at her door.
“Well,” she smiled. “You saw the graph.”
Correction: Feb. 6
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Rafi Khan ’15 and his app Screw Me Yale won the 2012 YCC App Challenge. In fact, Travelogue, an app by Jared Shenson ’12, Charlie Croom ’12 and Bay Gross ’13, took first place in the challenge. Khan’s entry ranked third.