In 1993, five years after Williams first established its computer science program, a new faculty member named Andrea Danyluk was asked what equipment she’d need to do her work. Her request—a SPARCstation 20 with four 50 MHz processors, 512 MB of memory and 1.05 GB of disk space, plus a separate 10 GB external hard drive—was unprecedented. The computer itself cost $18,000.
Much has changed since then. In terms of equipment alone, today’s inexpensive laptops have as much memory as Danyluk’s first external hard drive. Still, says fellow computer science professor Duane Bailey, “Computer scientists are less concerned with the details of technology du jour and more with the core questions we’ve been asking for years.”
That sentiment was repeated often during a weekend-long celebration of the department’s 25th anniversary in April.
Williams first began offering courses in introductory computer science, algorithms and programming language as part of the mathematics curriculum in the mid-1970s. But core questions, such as what is a computer, what is information, and how can information be structured efficiently, increasingly demanded a dedicated faculty that could ask and answer them through research and in the classroom. When a small group of math professors created the computer science department, “The split was natural,” says Kim Bruce, its first chair.
Over time, the department has grown to eight faculty members who offer some two dozen courses including “Artificial Intelligence,” “Digital Designs and Modern Architecture” and “The Socio-Techno Web.” The course offerings draw from and reach into nearly every discipline. “Our faculty believe in the liberal arts, enjoy teaching and actively involve students in research,” Bailey says. “While few students come here thinking of themselves as computer scientists, 15 to 20 graduate each year sharing our passion.”
And because many students major in a second subject, their understanding of computer science—and everything that grows out of it—is that much broader. Bailey calls it “the softer sensibility” that Williams alumni bring to the careers they choose. “It’s hard to imagine what a computer will look like in another 25 years, but our students will be able to contribute in meaningful ways when that time comes.”