by Kristin Dumont (Associate Director, Strategic and Donor Communications)
It started as a niche interest group within applied mathematics and engineering in the 1960s. Today, computer science at Brown has grown into a world-renowned department with 45 faculty members and more than 1,050 undergraduate concentrators, making it the largest concentration at the University.
And for good reason: from algorithms to artificial intelligence, computer science and related topics have come to dominate our daily lives. As digital technology and our reliance on it grow, Brown’s Department of Computer Science (CS) seeks to keep pace.
To do that requires the expansion of Brown’s capacity for teaching, research, and industry partnerships. Since 2015 when the BrownTogether campaign began, donors have given more than $34 million to support the exceptional work happening in the department. Now, as the department expands its collaborations both on and off campus, it aims to raise approximately $26 million for four additional endowed professorships, research support, and innovative programming.
Computer science faculty lead the way forward
A great curriculum begins with great faculty. Brown’s Department of Computer Science was started by a group of rising stars in an emerging discipline. Today, CS faculty members continue to bring expertise in rapidly changing areas of exploration within the field.
“The scope of what is studied in computer science is now dramatically wider than it was 25 years ago, and it has deeper ramifications,” says James Tompkin, the John E. Savage Assistant Professor of Computer Science, who came to Brown in 2016.
Tompkin specializes in visual computing, including “reconstruction”—making digital models of real-world scenes from cameras. Beyond measurement, his research has implications for augmented reality, telecommunications, and even deep-fake detection.
“In the past two years, new artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities have enabled visual computing to generate images of photorealistic quality that are entirely false,” he says. “Beyond the need for researchers to investigate these basic techniques, it creates new areas of study at the intersection of AI and human-computer interaction; new areas of theory; and sociological, legal, and policy implications. These all need new people with deep technical understanding and a wider perspective.”
Over the past decade, Brown has recruited CS faculty with teaching and research experience in machine learning, cryptography, algorithmic fairness, health data science, and natural language processing, among other areas. This expansion of specialization has contributed to a 187% increase in course enrollment since 2012.
Giving to computer science through the BrownTogether campaign, in the form of six endowed positions and research funding, has allowed the department to both attract faculty in areas of need and to retain professors whose expertise is in high demand. These funds provide the support faculty need to bring new ideas to the forefront and examine the effects each technological innovation might have on our daily lives.
Training students for peer-to-peer leadership
Many of the students who take CS courses at Brown are exploring the discipline for the first time. For them, the Undergraduate Teaching Assistantship (UTA) program is a major source of support.
The computer science UTA program is the oldest and the largest in the nation, employing more than 700 students. These peer mentors lead discussion sections and labs, help faculty with course and assignment development, and answer questions about course concepts and computer science pathways.
“I had great experiences with teaching assistants when I took my first CS class at Brown,” says Rachel Ma ’23, who concentrated in computer science and music. “I was eager to become a TA because I wanted to encourage more students to enjoy CS courses, help students if they struggled with concepts, and encourage more women to join the field.”
Ma, who will pursue her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, learned to look at class concepts in a different way and sharpened her leadership, organization, and communication skills through the UTA program.
“It helped prepare me for graduate school,” she says. “I look forward to having more opportunities like this one to interact with other students and perhaps teach more in the future.”
In 2018, Brown announced the establishment of a $10 million endowment for the UTA program, which was supported by more than 500 donors. Since then, enrollment in CS courses has continued to grow, sparking a new effort to add $2 million in additional funding to the endowment by December 2024.
Emphasizing social responsibility in computing
As more students immerse themselves in computer science, the department has devised a program that highlights the social and ethical dilemmas related to computing. The Socially Responsible Computing (SRC) program, which debuted in 2019, embeds into CS courses a framework that encourages students to explore and address the societal challenges associated with new technology. With support from an anonymous computer science alumnus in 2021, the program has expanded and now employs its own set of undergraduate teaching assistants.
“My prioritization of the health of users and everyone that is impacted by technology as a whole, is ultimately what led me to the SRC program,” says Fiona Liu ’25, who served as a Socially Responsible Teaching Assistant for a course on computer vision that Professor Tompkin taught in spring 2023.
“Within the field of user experience and user interface design alone, I found that there were a lot of dark patterns and manipulative aspects that were embedded within design, marketing, and artificial intelligence to perpetuate unhealthy consumerism as well as damaging effects on optical, neurological, and cognitive health.”
Liu and Melvin He ’25 collaborated with Tompkin and others to design a scenario where students had to consider what courses of action they would take if they found illegal or unethical data captured by the technology of a home robotics company. The students had to defend their choices and discuss best practices in a situation like this.
“I found this to be really engaging for students because it helped put their potential impact on society into perspective by scaling it down to feel relevant to them both as programmers and as consumers of these technologies,” says Liu.
Presenting responsible computing choices and ethical questions alongside technical information draws a clear connection between the choices computer scientists make and their effect on the world. It also plants the seed for responsible design thinking, which students can take into their professional endeavors.
“Adding dynamic, interactive discourse between students has enabled them to understand both technical perspectives and ethical frameworks better,” says He. “In addition, working with the professors on these topics enabled me to see the incredible importance of socially responsible computing and provided me with constant mentorship.”
The outsized influence of computation and data analysis presents Brown’s Department of Computer Science with exciting opportunities to build on its expertise and address the issues that arise with each new innovation.
“At a juncture when computer science might revolutionize our information systems once again with AI, giving faculty the freedom to invent, investigate, educate, and criticize CS is crucial to society at large,” says Tompkin.