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BrownCS Celebrates 35 Years

by Kevin Stacey (Science News Officer, Physical Sciences)

As the Brown community came together to celebrate Commencement in the University’s 250th year, computer science alumni reunited this weekend to celebrate another anniversary. This year marks the 35th year of Brown’s Department of Computer Science, which was founded in 1979.

Much has changed in computer science in those 35 years. The department started with one general-purpose computer: a lone Digital VAX-11/780. It was joined shortly thereafter, in 1981, by another of the same model. The two were affectionately dubbed Nancy and Sluggo after the cartoon characters. Nancy, which now resides as a museum piece on the third floor of Brown’s Center for Information Technology Building, boasted a whopping 512 kilobytes of memory and 67 megabytes of disk space. It was state-of-the-art at the time, but today, an iPhone 5 has about 18,000 times more computing power.

In the years that followed, things ramped up quickly.

“We wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation for an infrastructure grant to provide funding to purchase computers for the department for both research and teaching,” said John Savage, the An Wang Professor of Computer Science and one of the department’s founders. “By the fall of 1983, we had the first electronic classroom populated with powerful workstations.”

Today, the department boasts several labs filled with computers for student use, and a cluster consisting of 180 different computers and 1,800 central processing units for intensive research.

What hasn’t changed in those 35 years is the department’s commitment to groundbreaking research and graduate education, coupled with an undergraduate experience that is second to none.

“That’s a tradition I’m very proud of,” said Andries van Dam, the Thomas J. Watson Jr. University Professor of Technology and Education, professor of computer science, and the department’s first chair.

Early years

While the department was formed in 1979, the story of computer science at Brown goes back more than a decade earlier. In 1965, van Dam, who was awarded the second Ph.D. ever in the burgeoning field of computer science, joined the faculty in the Division of Applied Mathematics. Two years later, Savage joined the faculty in what was then the Division of Engineering. Along with Peter Wegner, also in Applied Mathematics, the trio formed the core of what would become Brown’s program in computer science.

Making the leap from program to department met with some early resistance, van Dam says.

“Starting a Department of Computer Science in an age where people appreciate the discipline on one hand but don’t think of it on equal terms as they do their own discipline on the other, has been a bit of a rough ride at times,” he said. “But I'm pleased to report that overall Brown has treated us well. These days the University truly values the contributions computer science can make.”

One of the founding principles of the department was articulated in a mission statement developed very early. The faculty chose a theme for the department: balancing theory and practice.

“We asked the question: What distinguishes us from other institutions?” Savage said. “There was Cornell, which was very theoretical. The faculty was dominated by people with mathematical backgrounds. One of the other leading departments was Carnegie Mellon, and they were primarily experimentally oriented. So we looked at our interests and found we had some people interested in the theoretical side of the house and others in the more applied side of the house. So we chose that theme for that reason.”

Research in the early days of the department was very much focused on building the foundations of a discipline in its infancy. Brown faculty made crucial contributions in those early years.

Van Dam worked with his students on the earliest hypertext systems, precursors to modern webpages with hyperlinks. He was also a pioneer in the field of computer graphics. He was co-author of the textbook Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice, considered to be “the Bible” of computer graphics. His research and books are widely recognized to have been influential in creating computer-aided design systems and modern animated films. Having invited him to the premiere of the blockbuster Toy Story, Steve Jobs presented van Dam with a book on the making of the film that included the inscription, “You made it so.”

Savage made crucial theoretical contributions to the coding and decoding of information for storage and transmission. He showed that these processes were intimately related to the size and depth of the circuits on which they are computed. He wrote the first book on this topic, known as circuit complexity, which is now a cornerstone of theoretical computer science.

Peter Wegner did seminal work on the theory and practice of programming languages. He pioneered object-oriented programming, a paradigm shift that led to modern computer languages like C++, Java, Python and others.

“Thanks to John, Andy, and Peter, Brown became internationally known for computer science research in the ’60s and ’70s, well before the CS department was founded,” said Roberto Tamassia, the Plastech Professor of Computer Science and current department chair.

Founded on undergraduate education

While pioneering research helped to put the department on the map, a priority was placed on undergraduate instruction from the beginning.

“You can look at the development of computer science and see that Brown was essentially unique in those early days in that we taught computer science not just at the graduate level but also at the undergraduate level,” van Dam said. “I was told by the top schools in computer science at the time that it was wrong to teach undergraduates computer science. They felt computer science should be a specialized graduate school-only discipline, and those departments didn’t really take undergraduates seriously until the late ’90s in some cases. So Brown was a full 30 years ahead of other institutions in terms of offering degrees in undergraduate computer science.”

That meant taking conscious steps to make sure that top faculty balanced their research and teaching responsibilities.

“It is very much part of our departmental culture that everybody teaches at every level,” van Dam said. “Despite the fact that we’ve become rather larger than we ever anticipated, Brown has preserved a sense that undergraduates matter as much as graduate students.”

That meant limiting, to some extent, the number of graduate students each professor would take on.

“One of the many foundational issues we tackled was what kind of department we wanted to be. Do we want to be big, or do we want to be in the Brown tradition of ‘small is beautiful?’” van Dam said. “We tried to settle how many Ph.D. students we wanted to have with classic math or computer science humor. We bounded the number between e [Euler’s constant] and Pi. So on average, each professor should have between 2.7 and 3.14 graduate students.”

Countless students, both graduate and undergraduate, have gone on to successful careers both in academia and industry. Van Dam counts at least seven graduates who have gone on to chair computer science departments around the country, including powerhouse departments at MIT and the University of Washington–Seattle. Others have taken top executive positions at companies like Intel, Microsoft, and Google.

Today, that commitment to undergraduate education is buttressed by a program that puts undergraduate teaching assistants in all the lower-level classes. Tamassia refers to the undergraduate teaching assistants program as the department’s “flagship program.”

For every undergraduate course, Brown aims to provide one undergraduate TA for every 10 students. The TAs hold extensive office hours to tutor fellow students, while helping professors in the creative endeavor of developing new assignments and projects.

“The TAs develop leadership and communication skills while gaining a deeper understanding of the material,” Tamassia said. “This system has been copied at other institutions. It has worked extremely well.”

The Future is Bright

Initiatives like the undergraduate TA program have helped the department manage a tremendous growth in enrollment. In the last six years, the enrollment in undergraduate computer science courses has tripled and computer science has become the second-largest declared concentration on campus. This year, a record number of degrees were awarded to 114 undergraduate computer science concentrators and 59 master’s and Ph.D. students.

“Increasing interest in computer science on the part of students is a global phenomenon,” Tamassia said. “The most important reason is that computer science is becoming pervasive in society, in business, in science, and in the way people interact. There are more and more exciting careers opening up for our graduates. There’s a need for computer scientists in all other sectors of the economy.”

The department has 26 highly decorated tenured and tenure-track faculty. Research in the department has taken on a decidedly outward-facing character, Savage says, with researchers forming new partnerships across campus and across disciplines.

A burgeoning robotics group is working to expand the use of robots in healthcare, education, industry, and elsewhere. Brown’s Center for Computational Biology is bringing the power of computers to problems in the life sciences, including the development of algorithms to help unravel the genetic underpinnings of cancer. The artificial intelligence group continues to develop strategies to help machines better solve problems and interact with people.

The graphics, visualization, and interaction group continues a long tradition of creating new ways for people to leverage the power of computers through novel human-computer interfaces, immersive virtual reality, pen computing, behavioral modeling, and internet-scale image analysis.

The data systems group is addressing the big data challenges faced by the industry, sciences, and engineering fields by developing highly scalable and usable data management and analytics software.

Other faculty are involved in foundational hardware and software systems research ranging from computer architecture to computer networks, distributed computing, and programming environments.

Finally, a number of faculty are attacking the grand challenge of securing cyberspace in an increasingly digital world with a broad approach that includes cryptographic foundations, programming languages, cloud computing, and Internet governance.

A list of research areas pursued by faculty in the department is available online.

Above all, the department has maintained its standing as one of the top computer science programs in the country.

“Possibly the most distinguishing feature of the department is that we compete with departments that are much larger in size,” Tamassia said. “We have truly outstanding faculty members. Our people are at the top of the field.”