Story posted April 19, 2011
"I'm hearing from people practically daily asking, 'Do you have any people who are graduating and are looking for jobs?' " says Bowdoin Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown. "I have to tell them, sorry."
At last count, Chown says, all of Bowdoin's graduating computer science majors had jobs lined up after college. And not your basic entry-level variety. Some are at major internet companies, where average starting salaries can waver around $70k.
"I wish I had started somewhere even close to that," laughs Chown. "But it's not like Bowdoin is just teaching people vocational skills," he says. "We teach students to think and reason. It's just that, when you add computer science to the package, those skills are highly valuable in today's world."
Mobile applications development is one of the hottest fields in computing these days. According to an April 15, 2011, report in The Wall Street Journal, online job listings with the keyword "iPhone" has nearly tripled, with "Android" job listings more than quadrupling.
"If you look at the numbers of people with mobile smart phones, they are increasing at an unbelievable rate," observes computer science major Ben Johnson '11. "It's not just smart phones, it's tablets ... Mobile applications aren't going away anytime soon."
Johnson should know. He put Bowdoin on the apps map two years ago when he saw his fledgling iPhone application project go viral on campus. Johnson developed a downloadable application that shows daily menus at all Bowdoin dining halls. He was stunned by the response, he says. Read about the dining application.]
"To see all the downloads coming in and know that pretty much everyone on campus with an iPhone was using it was phenomenal," says Johnson. "People came up to me and told me to keep doing this. Bowdoin is a phenomenal place to explore these varied interests and skill sets, a great place to figure things out. At a larger school I would have been lost, a fish in an ocean instead of a small pond."
The field was just inventing itself when Johnson started. He taught himself how to program for iPhone applications with the support of a Gibbons Summer Research fellowship.
"I had two computer science classes under my belt, which gave me a basis for how to understand computer language, in this case, Objective-C," he says. "I'm not a phenomenal mathematician, it was more about understanding how languages work. Ultimately, all computer languages are similar in their creation and syntax."
Building on that success, Johnson teamed up with his first-year roomie, Nathan Merritt ' 11, to develop their own mobile applications company, creating iPhone and android apps for local businesses.
On running a business while keeping up a full load of academics and co-curricular activities, Johnson says: "My sleeping has suffered and my general sanity, but it's like any other commitment. Everybody at Bowdoin does a lot of things. I'm just a little more tied to my phone than most people."
When the pair showcased their applications at an informal meetup of Boston developers last fall, they were besieged by job interview offers. Within three weeks, both had jobs lined up after Bowdoin—Johnson at Raizlabs, a small, mobile development powerhouse in Cambridge, Mass., and Merritt as an android apps developer with TripAdvisor in Boston.
"Nathan wanted to jump on TripAdvisor because they are dealing with massive data sets that tell people how to travel in the most efficient ways. He's great with data like that," observes Johnson. "I took Raizlab's offer because it's a close-knit team and I can learn more of the management side of things. Ultimately, down the road we may get back together."
In the past two years, majors in computer science have more than doubled. There are 15 majors in the class of 2013. Although the department is fairly intimate, with just four faculty members, their range of expertise is wide and is tied into many cutting-edge trends.
A Computer and Network Security course taught by Assistant Professor Daniela Oliveira lets students perform and analyze real security attacks in a controlled environment. Associate Professor Laura Toma's research on massive data sets is in the forefront of GIS applications: Students have helped her develop open source software that is greatly increasing the amount of data computers can handle.
Department Chair Stephen Majercik is using swarm intelligence—a computational model that takes its inspiration from social insects—to develop a computer program capable of generating musical counterpoint and responses to a live, improvising musician.
"We've worked hard the past couple of years to attract new students," observes Chown. "We had new curriculum approved to expand course offerings and allow more entry points for students, to make it more friendly."
Danielle McAvoy '13 is a case in point. She didn't intend to be a computer science major. In fact, she only took a computer class to appease her mother.
"She's a programmer and her one requirement for helping pay for schooling was that I take CS101," said McAvoy. "I took it and fell in love."
That love just translated into a two-and-half year grant to work intensively on robotics research with Prof. Chown. McAvoy is one of five Bowdoin students selected as a Clare Boothe Luce Program research scholar, a coveted grant that supports multi-year research for women in science, mathematics and engineering. She will be working on new cognitive and spatial modeling research
in the context of RoboCup, Bowdoin's world championship-winning robotics team.
"Computer science is different than all the math and science you are forced to take growing up," says McAvoy. "It's problem solving. When you're programming something and you're sitting there frustrated, hitting a wall, and all the sudden you get it and it works, it's the best feeling in the world. Like Sodokuu. Programming is a bigger scale version of that."
Data processing and analysis is driving research in an increasingly broad spectrum of disciplines, notes Chown: "If you look around campus and see the research [Assistant Professor of Sociology] Dhiraj Murthy is doing on Twitter ... or at Mary Lou Zeeman's new research in climate mathematics, you'll find a strong component of computer science. If you are going to do significant scientific modeling or data analysis these days, you really need to have the support of a programmer. [Read stories about Murthy's research and Mary Lou Zeeman's initiatives.]
"The great thing about Bowdoin," adds Chown, "is that students get to work one-on-one with their professors on very high level research, which often translates to honors projects."
The research sometimes goes both ways.
Chown has been tapping Ben Johnson's experiences learning how to program for the iPhone to help him develop a new course on mobile computing to be offered in the fall.
"The field is still in its infancy," says Chown, "so the tools aren't nearly as developed as they would be if I were teaching Java I. But I have no doubts that apps are the future of computer science."