A Brief History of CS at Wellesley College

A black-and-white photograph of a Black Wellesley student working in the computer center in the library, taken circa 1975-85.

A Brief History of Computer Science at Wellesley College

The Computer Science Department at Wellesley College was founded in 1982; as we approach our 40th anniversary in 2022, we look back on the history of Computer Science at Wellesley and the ways that our department has evolved over the years as technology has shaped the world in new ways. From punch cards and 16-bit machines to the cutting-edge technology of today, it’s been a long journey. Here we reflect on the past, and share our aspirations for the future. 

Prehistoric Computing 

Computer Science at Wellesley College dates back to 1968, when two faculty members at MIT, Arthur Bushkin and John Coffman, conducted a trial course in automated computation. In those days, using computers meant shuttling punch cards back and forth between Wellesley and Cambridge for batch processing at MIT. Things started changing by the following year, when Wellesley College rented its own 16-bit IBM 1130 machine, hired a full-time Computer Science director, and began teaching a version of the course in the APL programming language.

Wellesley College began experimenting with a part-time port to Dartmouth Timesharing (DTSS) early in the 1970s, and continued to maintain several part-time ports to DTSS until 1976, when a grant funded the purchase of a 36-bit DECsystem-20 mainframe, known affectionately as DECStar (or “Dexter”). Throughout the 1970s, Wellesley offered one or two computer science courses every year, and enrollment climbed from 48 students in 1972 to 241 in 1979.

Students and a professor in a Computer Science class, 1974

Birth of a Department

Realizing the potential of this new discipline, not to mention the skyrocketing enrollments, Wellesley College hired its first full-time CS faculty member, Professor Eric Roberts, in 1980. Over the next three years, Wellesley welcomed four more CS professors.

By the fall of 1982, a bona fide Computer Science curriculum was in place. CS 110, taught in BASIC and in a Turtle Logo language developed at Wellesley, became one of the College's largest courses. Courses in data structures and computer organization promised to be equally successful. By 1983, total enrollment had grown to 643 students.

The Computer Science Department was created in the Spring of 1982, and for the first time Wellesley College could offer students a Computer Science major. The Computer Science curriculum consisted of a total of 10 distinct courses, although only 8 were required for the degree. The first CS majors would graduate the following year in the Class of 1983.

A letter from President Keohane, dated 2/1/1982, approving the establishment of a Computer Science Department

Growing Pains

The rapid growth of Computer Science at Wellesley College was not without its problems. DECStar, by now upgraded to a DECsystem-60, was pushing the outer envelope of its computational ability. Access to computer terminals was severely limited, and tensions in the single terminal room on campus were on the rise. Hiring and maintaining faculty was difficult in the competitive and fast-growing computing industry of the early 1980s.

In the fall of 1985, the department finally purchased its first dedicated computer system, a MicroVAX II running UNIX (originally named Greece, but dubbed “Bambam” by the computer science majors.) Through a generous grant from the AT&T Corporation, CS faculty became some of the first people at Wellesley to have microcomputers at their desks. These machines were networked to DECStar through the beginnings of Wellesley's LAN, and the College was connected to both CSNet and BITNET, forerunners of the modern Internet. A computer science terminal area, built in the mezzanine of the Science Center Library, became known as Bedrock (because Bambam lived there) and quickly became home to students and faculty alike.

The study of Computer Science at a liberal arts college was still a new concept. However, a consensus on CS curriculum and major requirements was beginning to emerge among faculty at many like-minded institutions. Working with peers through NECUSE and other professional organizations, Wellesley College faculty began a major revision of the curriculum. CS 111 replaced CS 110 as the entry to the major. Pascal replaced BASIC as the first-taught language. Theory and foundation courses migrated from the 300-level to the 200-level in order to provide students a firm grounding in the basics early in their major. Advanced courses such as Compiler Design and Construction, Computer Graphics, and Operating Systems were moved to the UNIX-based MicroVAX and were taught in C. Digital laboratories were created for hardware-oriented courses such as Computer Organization and Computer Architecture.

The Wellesley Computer Science Department, 1992

The Nineties

Computing at Wellesley continued to change and to grow. DECStar retired and was replaced by a VAX cluster (“Lucy,” “Sallie,” and “Marcie”). The campus LAN was completed, and the College Workstation Project put a PC or Macintosh on every desk; dorm rooms were wired to the LAN, and computer areas were springing up all over campus.

Computer Science by now had outgrown its quarters in Bedrock, and Bambam was showing signs of middle age. In the fall of 1990, IBM granted the computer science department a half million dollars in RISC RS6000 equipment. Several advanced programming courses immediately began to take advantage of this new technology. Planning was underway for yet another addition to the Science Center, in order to house a new computer equipped classroom, graphics and digital electronics laboratories, faculty offices and several large workstations.

Fall 1991 was hectic. The new addition to the Science Center opened five days before classes began. Fifteen RS6000 workstations and associated peripherals, central to the fall curriculum, had to be installed in the new minifocus. The digital electronics laboratory was only partially equipped. Workstations flickered, operating systems crashed, and network problems abounded. Miraculously, all systems went online as scheduled. The fall of 1991 was also the beginning of a renaissance in computer science hires, as dynamic new faculty and staff re-energized the department and offered exciting new research opportunities for students.

While advanced courses moved to the RS6000 RISC stations, Apple Macintoshes replaced the VAX cluster as the platform for introductory students. In 1992, with the generous support of the Apple Computer Corporation and the help of Wellesley’s IT department, the CS department installed 15 Macintosh II ci color computers into Science Center E101. The old version of CS 110, still taught in BASIC, was thrown out in favor of a new project-based CS 110, taught in HyperCard; CS 111 was updated to use THINK Pascal.

As the decade progressed, the curriculum continued to expand and change. CS 110 entered its third incarnation as “Computer Science and the Internet,” using the Internet as a domain to explore fundamental concepts in computer science. Students built websites using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

In Fall 1997, we became among the first schools to adopt Java in our introductory curriculum. CS 111 students began learning introductory programming and problem solving in the context of bagel-eating buggles, turtles, recursive pictures, animations, and other Java-based microworlds. The Robotic Design Studio course (joint with Physics), in which students learned to build and program Lego robots, became a popular annual Wintersession course. CS 215, The Art and Science of Multimedia (joint with Art), was developed to create a bridge between Computer Science and Art; this was the first step toward creating the Media Arts and Sciences major. New 300-level courses, such as Parallel Machines and Their Algorithms, and Visual Processing by Computer and Biological Vision Systems, were developed in exciting areas of faculty expertise.

The Wellesley Computer Science Department, 2001

A New Century

The dot-com boom that fueled the expansion of the department in the late nineties was followed by the dot-com bust. Wellesley was not immune to the fallout from the declining computer industry, and course enrollments and majors dropped significantly. Enrollments in CS 230 Data Structures plummeted from 27 in Fall 2001, to 7 in Fall 2002. CS course enrollments reached a low in the 2007-08 academic year.

Fortunately, this drop was followed by rapid growth. While these fluctuations were due in part to external factors driving nationwide trends in computer science enrollments, the decline in the early 2000s triggered a movement in the department to create greater visibility for the exciting work of our CS students. In 2005, we held the first of our bi-annual “Cirque du CS” celebrations that showcased student research and project work in courses at all levels of our curriculum, and brought together faculty, students, alumnae, and friends and family in celebrating scholarship. Students became more proactive in giving presentations on their CS research and internship work at the annual College-wide Ruhlman and Tanner conferences. A highlight of this time was increased student participation in research and attendance at conferences such as the New England Undergraduate Computing Symposium (NEUCS), first held at Wellesley College in 2009, the Annual Conference of the Northeast Region of the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSCNE), the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and other scientific conferences. 

We introduced additional introductory courses to accommodate a broader range of student interests and to take advantage of newer technology. CS 112, Computation for the Sciences, teaches students in the sciences how to use computers effectively through the use of the MATLAB programming language. CS 115, Computing for the Socio-Techno Web, was geared toward learning about computer science in the context of social aspects of computing. CS 117, Inventing Mobile Apps, taught students how to create apps for mobile devices as a vehicle for learning about the big ideas of computer science and contemporary issues of technology.

New middle and upper level courses were developed to reflect the evolution of the field: Computer Networks, Systems Programming, Databases with Web Interfaces, E-Commerce, Computer Security, Foundations of Cryptography Web Search and Data Mining, Computational Biology, Human Computer Interaction, and Tangible User Interfaces.

Other new courses were taught by visiting scholars; in 2007, the Norma Wilentz Hess Fellowship was established, giving the department the opportunity to hire outstanding teachers and scholars for a period of two years to teach exciting new areas of computer science not already covered by current faculty members. Courses taught by Hess Fellows included The Science of Networks, Research Methods in Developmental Robotics, Games, Web Mashups, The Intelligent Web, and Quantifying the World.

The computing facilities of the department continued to evolve. The early Macintoshes had been replaced several times over by the year 2000, and the RS6000 workstations, too, were long gone; Macintosh computers were installed in the classroom for introductory courses, and Windows and Linux boxes in the lab for advanced ones. A new laboratory was constructed to become the primary room for teaching material requiring Linux. Our Human-Computer Interaction Lab opened, equipped with a Microsoft Surface, a variety of microcontrollers and toolkits, and diverse mobile devices for investigating next-generation human-computer interactions including tangible, table-top, and embodied user interfaces. An Engineering Lab was outfitted, as part of the new Engineering Certificate program (but also used for CS courses and research), featuring a laser cutter, 3D printer, and computer-aided design software.

As technology became more and more important to all academic endeavors, the interdisciplinary ties between the Computer Science department and other departments strengthened. The Media Arts and Sciences program is co-directed by the CS and Art departments. CS faculty serve on the advisory committees for the Neuroscience and Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences programs, and advise students pursuing the Bioinformatics individual major. The Robotics Design Studio course was co-taught by CS and Physics. CS faculty were involved in engineering efforts at Wellesley, including teaching Introduction to Engineering and working to make engineering opportunities at MIT and Olin College available to Wellesley students.

Recipients of the 2022 Wellesley Camellia Award for Inclusive Excellence pose for a photo

The Present Day

In recent years, the Computer Science department has been making an effort to expand and support inclusivity and diversity at Wellesley and in the world. CS faculty have worked to reflect on their own experiences and knowledge about racism and are working towards building our CS community to be stronger together. In 2019, the department approved the Computer Science Community Values Statement. Professor Stanley Chang (Mathematics) and Professor Sohie Lee (Computer Science) taught a First-Year Seminar in Fall 2021 for first-gen and/or low-income students, MATH 124Y, that was intended to give a boost to disadvantaged students interested in pursuing Computer Science or Math. Prior to MATH 124Y, Professor Chang, Professor Lee, and Professor Oscar Fernandez (Mathematics) ran WESI (Wellesley Emerging Scholars Initiative), a learning community program designed to recruit, support, and retain underrepresented students in STEM majors.

Much of this work in the CS department has been student-driven. Sarah Abdulkerim (‘22) worked with Professor Sohie Lee on two projects, one collecting data about microaggressions experienced by underrepresented minorities in CS classes via surveys and focus groups and generating a list of suggestions for faculty to make their classrooms more welcoming, and the other organizing and hosting a lecture series called Empowering Women of Color in Technology during Fall 2020. Sarah won the 2022 CS department spirit award for her DEI leadership. Gaby Inchoco (‘22) designed inclusive tutor training modules that can be used independently or in sequence to increase our CS tutors’ collective awareness of inclusion, and won the 2022 CS department Rhys and Laurel Price Jones Team Leadership Award for her tutor training work. Lana Abdi (‘24) is collecting climate data from Black students in STEM about their experiences at Wellesley. Alana Mackey (‘24) and Yuling Sun (‘24) are building a curated CS resource bank website aimed at students who arrive at Wellesley curious about CS. The website will launch later this year. Alana and Yuling won the 2022 Wellesley Camellia Award for Inclusive Excellence. The work of our students to change and transform the department reflects their drive to change and transform the world.

One current prominent effort to highlight diversity in CS is our “Wellesley in Tech” project, displaying digital posters of non-binary folks and women of color in technology as inspiration to our current CS students. Almost all the role models in technology who are celebrated by the popular media are white males; however, our students are inspired by outstanding female and non-binary role models. If our students can see bold reminders in academic settings that there are people of color thriving in STEM, this can influence how they see themselves with respect to the field of Computer Science. This project, spearheaded by students Audrea Huang (‘22) and Julie Lely (‘23), has launched in time for the Fall 2022 semester; the posters, featuring profiles of Wellesley students and alumnae who are pursuing careers in tech, are now being displayed on the monitors in the Science Center and the CS labs, so that students of color can look up at role models to inspire and represent them and their promising futures in the field.

Following two very popular CS courses taught by 2015-2017 Hess Fellow Sravana Reddy, one in Natural Language Processing and one in Machine Learning, it became very clear that there was great eagerness among our students for data-centric courses and other opportunities to work with so-called "big data". The College addressed this reality by first establishing a Statistics minor, to provide the rigor that working with data needs, followed in April 2019 by the approval of a structured individual major in Data Science. The course plan for the major requires students to take CS 111 and CS 230 and at least one or two CS electives. Furthermore, students can create their own concentration in Data Engineering, which typically means completing three 300-level CS courses such as CS 304 Databases, CS 305 Machine Learning, CS 315 Data and Text Mining for the Web, and CS 333 Natural Language Processing. Wellesley students have embraced this new major with a lot of enthusiasm. Starting with only three graduating majors in 2020, the number of majors has increased to 17 for the Class of 2022. A highlight of the major is the capstone requirement, in which students can demonstrate their data science skills by completing a research project and presenting it to the community. As the major grows and we learn more about students' needs, a larger number of them are taking more CS courses than required, to strengthen their programming and algorithmic skills.

Starting in 2018, the Science Center has undergone a major renovation, marking the largest construction project that the College has undertaken in over a century. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the process, the construction work wrapped up in time for the Fall 2022 semester. New buildings include the Research, Innovation, and Teaching Building; the Angle Building, which houses the Frost Center for the Environment; the Chao Foundation Innovation Hub; and several reimagined spaces in the E-wing, such as the Horticulture and Ecology Lab. The complex is also on target to achieve LEED Platinum Certification for sustainable design. The new buildings’ open classrooms, windows, and common spaces are designed to make science visible and accessible. The interdisciplinary laboratory spaces will bring together faculty and students from different departments to explore some of the grand challenges of our time, from understanding the human brain and behavior, to developing sustainable food and agricultural systems, to addressing racial and gender bias in artificial intelligence.

New additions to the Science Center include spacious computer lab classrooms, which were designed for pair programming and active learning, as well as a new Playable Media Lab, which will house new high-end computing equipment to support development of interactive media, such as Digital Gaming and Virtual Reality. The Playable Media Lab will host events throughout the year and be the primary location for CS 121 Intro to Game Design, CS 221 Digital Worlds for Gaming, and CS 321 Extended Reality. This lab is also designed to complement other Media Arts and Sciences affiliated spaces, such as a new space for the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, which now includes large-scale interactive wall and tabletop displays and a driving simulator, as well as the Media Arts Lab in the Jewett Art Center.

To The Future

As the field of Computer Science continues to shift, we continue to constantly re-evaluate and update our curriculum. We are always working to determine the best tools and approaches to inspire and empower our students to become ethical leaders and innovators in computing and tech. Over the decades, change has remained the one constant. The study of Computer Science at our next decennial anniversary will be far different from today. Our department will be too. We look forward to the challenge.