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 A packed house for UW’s introductory programming class. Photo via Hélène Martin.
A packed house for UW’s introductory programming class. Photo via Hélène Martin.

Computer Science & Engineering has become the leading “first-choice” major among confirmed incoming freshmen at the University of Washington, surpassing the longtime leading preferred major, Business Administration.

The milestone illustrates the unprecedented level of interest in the field of computer science, and puts new pressure on a public university with limited capacity to educate computer science students.

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Credit: University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering

“At UW and across the nation, student interest in computer science is booming,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in the UW department of Computer Science & Engineering, in an email to GeekWire this morning. “It’s visible in 3 ways: enrollment in introductory courses, interest in upper-division courses by students majoring in other fields, and demand for the major.”

The interest among students coincides with rising demand from major corporate players. The need for computer science graduates has reached new heights in the Seattle region due to a strong startup ecosystem, Amazon’s rapid growth, and the opening of Seattle-area engineering offices by Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies. In addition, engineering is becoming an increasingly important role at non-tech companies.

The University of Washington, which runs one of the top computer science programs in the country, is raising funds to build a second computer science building on the Seattle campus, giving it more capacity across the street from the existing Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering. The new 130,000 square-foot building, which will help the UW keep up with growing demand for computer science degrees, is expected to cost roughly $110 million and will be funded with both public and private money. A year ago, Microsoft gave the UW $10 million for the new building.

Lazowska cites different factors for the booming interest in computer science education.

– Every 21st century citizen needs to be fluent at “computational thinking.” Programming, at the introductory level, is the hands-on, inquiry-based way we teach computational thinking. So enrollment in introductory courses is booming – we taught 5,000 students in our two introductory courses last year.

– For many careers, you need deeper knowledge of computer science than merely an introductory course. Just about every field, from astronomy to zoology, is becoming an information field. This past year, for example, 900 students took the graduate machine learning course at Stanford!

– Here and nationally, the vast majority of STEM jobs, and the vast majority of STEM job growth, is in computer science. And even beyond this, a degree in computer science is terrific preparation for a wide range of careers. Thus, demand for the major is exploding, here and elsewhere. In the past 8 years, computer science has grown from the 21st most popular concentration at Harvard to the 3rd most popular.

“Inevitably there are cycles in demand,” he concluded. “But the long-term trend is clear — due to the long-term role of computer science in the world. And our region is at the center of much of this.”

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