Stern Computer Science Department Goes from Zero to 25 Students in One Year

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  October 10, 2017

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, SCW sophomore Rivka Apfel decided to switch to Queens College. In her first year she had taken an Introduction to Java course and decided to pursue a major in Computer Science, but at the time no such major existed. In fact, other than the class she had already taken, there was only one other computer science course offered. While she called the intro course she took “really incredible,” there was nowhere for her to move forward. “They talked about maybe building a major eventually,” She told The Observer, “but [they] couldn’t guarantee it, so I left.”

When applying to Stern in 2014, Brielle Broder, SCW ‘19, had to face a similar decision. “When I applied to Stern, there was no Computer Science major. I worried that I would either have to sacrifice learning what I’m passionate about or being a student at Stern,” she said.  

Fortunately she didn’t have to make that choice. Dr. Alan Broder, head of the Computer Science Department at Stern, spoke to The Observer about the drastic changes the department has undergone in recent years. “Over the past few years Stern’s Computer Science department has evolved from offering just a minor in Computer Science with limited course offerings, to a BA program in Computer Science,” he said.

“A year ago, there were zero students majoring in Computer Science, now there are about 25 students with a declared major in Computer Science, and additional students who are contemplating declaring the major.”

Although the major is almost brand new, Dr. Broder insists that it is not only up to speed with other competitive undergraduate programs, but is superior in some respects. “Our Computer Science curriculum address the core requirements of most other Computer Science departments, and in some ways, offers more intense exposure to content not offered at other departments,” he said. “Our Computer Science faculty have very strong industrial backgrounds, which means that in addition to covering classical and theoretical computer science, we also pay added attention to practical skills and technologies that are in demand.”

Indeed offerings for the Fall 2017 semester look very different than they did in Apfel’s time at Stern. There are two Introduction to Computer Science courses offered with a total of 39 students enrolled, as well as six other classes that cover topics ranging from Discrete Structures to Web Development.

Computer Science major Racheli Moskowitz, SCW ‘19, has been happy to see the department grow. “I was actually really surprised by the effort the university is putting towards the Computer Science Department,” she said. “I really feel like they care about building up the department.”

An emphasis on STEM has been a consistent talking point in President Berman’s public statements, most notably the keynote address at his investiture, in which he highlighted the importance of “building new opportunities for STEM, especially in computers and coding,” along with the creation of bridge programs with Hebrew University and Bar Ilan for graduate studies in computer science.

Dr. Berman also singled out STEM expansion in his response to YU’s almost 30 place drop to 94th rank in U.S. News and World Report’s College ranking this September, telling The Observer, “we are excited about our expanding academic opportunities, particularly in the STEM and health fields, that will only bolster our reputation.”

While cynics might have shrugged off Dr. Berman’s assertions on the importance of STEM as lip service, Dr. Broder confirmed that this support has already been put into action. “Dr. Berman has made it clear how important STEM is to YU in general, and to Stern in particular. This fall, the Stern Computer Science Department was authorized to hire an additional full-time faculty member, which by Fall 2018 will bring the total of full-time faculty dedicated to Stern Computer Science to three. We plan to use this expansion of our staff to expand the range of Computer Science courses available to both majors and nonmajors.”
In an interview with The Observer Dr. Karen Bacon, Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of the Arts and Sciences, pointed out that improving the Computer Science Department at Stern has been a goal since before Dr. Berman came on the scene.

Dr. Bacon noted that while there used to be a Computer Science major at Stern a long time ago, “the department fell apart” around the time the dotcom bubble popped in the early 2000s due to a lack of job opportunities and lack of student interest. “If we had one major a year it was a lot back then, so we moved away from it,” she said. “But as things in the outside world changed–the job market expanded and high schools began to encourage women to get involved in coding–we saw that we had to have a dynamite department so that women who are interested know they would be trained well here.” Dr. Bacon praised Dr. Broder, who joined the faculty four years ago to spearhead the program after running his own cyber security business, for his experience and vision. “We follow his lead in terms of crafting what we need to expand the department.”

After making sure the cicurlcum was in line “with what is considered the industry standard,” Dr. Bacon said that the goal has been to expand “into specialty areas” and to create courses for nonmajors “who don’t want to major in computer science, but want to be computer savvy for whatever field they choose to go into.”

Professor Ari Shamash, who currently works at Google and is teaching Computer Systems at Stern this semester, agreed that “what I’ve seen [of the department] matched up quite well with other universities.”

He consented that there are still improvements that can be made, such as “offering more advanced classes for those who are interested as well as [offering] independent research, working on a project that benefits the individual as well as the school in some way.” But he also pointed out that many of these improvements are already in the works. For example, “This semester the department added Natural Language Processing, an advanced elective covering Artificial Intelligence topics.” The department has also started to offer more seniors “teaching assistant positions, enabling those students to learn and practice key coaching and teaching skills.”

Dr. Bacon expects the department to continue to grow and make those improvements. “For women, interest in computer science is going up, even if it is going up more slowly [than it is for men].” That interest has been critical in making the computer science department a focus of board meetings as well as administrative and financial attention. “Our investment in computer science is based off the interest of our students,” Dr. Bacon said. “Just last year I brought up [to the board of Stern College] that we have to expand the Computer Science department, and next board meeting’s topic will be about expanding the department again.”

Although Brielle Broder does admit that she would “love to see a broader range of classes from the Computer Science department” since right now “there are only a few Computer Science electives,” she is also quick to praise the department and its faculty. “I am so appreciative of all my professors’ willingness to and enthusiasm for helping students with the internship and job hunting process. Since the beginning of the school-year, I have already received six emails from the head of the Computer Science department about applying to various internships for the summer. It is so comforting to know that the professors really want their students to succeed.”

While she almost had to decide between computer science and Stern, Broder, now Vice President of the Computer Science Society for the Beren Campus, has been able to enjoy the full experience of both.

“When I applied they didn’t offer the Computer Science major I wanted.  Now, however, there is a scholarship available for students who come to Stern specifically wanting to major in Computer Science,” she reflected. “It is so exciting to see how quickly the Computer Science department has grown in the past few years.”