Innovation in Stanford CS

While Stanford’s Computer Science department has long been recognized as one of the world’s leading centers for computer science research and education, in recent years, faculty have taken great strides to use the department’s resources to improve computer science education worldwide. Their effort is epitomized in an online course offered this quarter.

Professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig are offering an experimental, fully-fledged artificial intelligence class, titled “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online, making it available to the whole world. The free class currently has an enrollment of over 120,000 people from 190 countries, an unprecedented figure for enrollment in an online class.

In a video he posted on the class’s website, Thrun remarked that the class was promoted “with a single email message.” He called the turnout “absolutely amazing.”

The course is primarily video based and runs parallel to a similar class at Stanford taught by both Thrun and Norvig, CS 221 – Artificial Intelligence: Principles and Techniques. The Stanford version of the class, though designed to be more rigorous than the online version, also contains online video components and video-based assignments.

Because the class is being offered to such a large amount of people, likely having a wide variability in computer science background, the online class is being offered in two tracks. One track is a more work-intensive advanced track and the other is a more relaxed introductory track.

The Stanford Computer Science Department also has other initiatives aimed at packaging and disseminating education throughout the world.
Professor Roberts and Stanford Ph.D. student Chris Piech work on the “Nothing But a Browser” project with the intention of making computer science education available to people mostly in underdeveloped countries. Because many people in these nations do not have computers, Roberts and Piech began designing a system by which one could receive a computer science education by using nothing but a web browser, even if it can only be accessed via a cell phone.

They created an online version of the Karel the Robot software, a program similar to that used in introductory programming classes at Stanford.

Another program, “Stanford in a Box,” operates on the notion that Stanford’s curriculum and materials can be exported to other universities around the world.

According to Professor Roberts, the program is “not packaging things for direct consumption by students in the way the ‘Nothing But a Browser’ project is, but there are a lot of institutions…that would like to teach computer science, but they don’t have people who know the field very well, they don’t have a lot of time and resources compared to Stanford, and developing curricula in computer science is resource–intensive.”

He continued, “The idea of Stanford in a Box, of taking an extremely successful program, [is to] get a Stanford-like education going at more places…we’re graduating a lot of physics majors and math majors in this country who go on to get programming jobs and that’s only because we’re not producing anywhere near enough computer scientists.”In addition to the overwhelming reach of online materials, Stanford’s Computer Science department has recently been making advances in the computer science curriculum, specifically in scaling and exporting its curriculum to other universities worldwide.

According to Professor Eric Roberts, Professor Nick Parlante is leading a project to use Stanford as a “pilot site for a new Computer Science Principles Advanced Placement exam.” The idea of the class is to introduce students to “contextualization and applications and things you wouldn’t normally have in a traditional programming class,” Roberts stated. “It’s similar to a number of initiatives that were pioneered in the 80s and 90s, which were called Breadth-First Approaches to Computer Science, where you would get people in the introductory class to understand the breadth of the field—that CS is about more than just programming.”

In 2001, Professor Roberts headed a joint committee of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers(IEEE) , the two largest computing organizations in the world, to standardize computer science curricula at universities.. The committee report featured a number of suggestions and guidelines regarding what elements were and were not critical to an undergraduate computer science education.

Another session of this committee is scheduled for 2013 with Professor Mehran Sahami, who is well known by many students for teaching an introductory programming class each fall. Many of the committee’s recommendations will be based on extensive changes Stanford’s Computer Science department made to its curriculum in recent years.

Sahami stated, “The goal is to give programs a set of guidelines to help them modernize their curriculums.” To him, educators have to think to themselves: “It’s been ten years since the last set of guidelines…what are the topics that have come to the [foreground] since that time? They might include new topics or topics that have gained new importance, and what are some of the topics as a result that have become more dated?”

Necessarily, a number of topics have been added to, revised, or even removed from Stanford’s curriculum over the years, and these changes will be reflected in Sahami’s report. “Part of making the conscious decision to say you’re going to add stuff is also making the conscious decision to say you’re going to remove stuff,” it stated.

Those changes seem to be working—Computer Science is currently the second most-declared major on campus, and around 90 percent of Stanford students take some form of computer science class before they graduate.

Overall, the influence of Stanford’s Computer Science department not only on Stanford students but also on the wider academic world is continually growing. With these new programs on the horizon, the faculty at Stanford hope to be able to educate more students more completely across the world.

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