50 years Computer Science WPI

Computer science alumni representing five decades took part in a panel discussion. (From L-R): Robert H. Mason ’94; Roger Heinen ’73; department head Craig Wills; Asima Silva ’01, ’04 (MS CS); Andreea Bodnari ’10; and Beth Phalen ’85

Alumni Reflect on 50 Years of Computer Science

Advances in field, campus memories, faculty mentors among discussion at March celebration

April 2, 2019
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More than 200 faculty, staff, alumni, and friends gathered on March 16 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of WPI’s Computer Science (CS) department––with some alumni of the program traveling from as far away as Singapore for the festivities.

According to department head Craig Wills, WPI’s first computer science master’s degree was offered in 1969, its first bachelor's degree in 1970. 

To commemorate a half-century of computer science at WPI, a celebration was held in the Foisie Innovation Studio, along with historical displays and student posters. The event also included a panel discussion on the past, present, and future of computer science at WPI featuring President Laurie Leshin, Dean of Arts and Sciences Jean King, and alumni panelists representing each decade of the CS program.

Wills, who organized the event in partnership with the Office of Alumni Relations, said it was a reflection of an accumulation of five decades of achievement for a department that continues to remain at the forefront of research and student learning, and is an interdisciplinary force on campus.

Views from the Past

Wills and others spoke fondly about Allan E. Johannesen, known as AEJ, who arrived at WPI in 1964 when the “academic” IBM 1620 computer was run by the math department and was housed in the basement of Stratton Hall.

“You couldn’t go through here without knowing AEJ,” Wills said. “It was somewhat of a badge of honor.”

Panelist Roger Heinen ’73 said one word he'd use to describe the computer industry when he was attending WPI in the early 1970s is “narrow.”

“Computing was about numbers, storing, and filing things,” he said. “What we know today as the software industry didn’t exist [back then]. If corporate Americana Fortune 500 had run a survey, probably no one would say a business’s success would be linked to its IT department. That was about to change.”

Heinen added that CS machines were “beasts” back then––dozens of feet long with poor memory that produced a lot of heat. But he said he was “super lucky” in 1970 to have signed up to graduate in the CS department.

Scott Plichta ’91, who traveled from Philadelphia for the event, said the last time he was on campus was 10 years ago. “WPI was early with teaching teamwork. With other colleges, it was all about competing in everything and here it was about collaboration,” he said. “It prepared us and propelled us into leadership early, knowing how to work together. Coming here was the best experience and set me up well for the rest of my career.”

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Trustee Erica Mason, '96 and Chad Council '94
Trustee Erica Mason, '96 and Chad Council '94

Chad Council ’94 said that WPI was the absolute best fit for him. “The greatest thing I got out of the CS program was the skills to solve any problem. Just like with developing software, we were taught to break down a problem into parts and come up with a solution,” he said. “There is a culture here of encouraging risk and pushing yourself that is very valuable and seen commonly in industry.”

He described his Major Qualifying Project (MQP) as “very cool”—he and his project partner built a virtual reality system that allowed users to create and manipulate the virtual world while they were immersed in it.

Panelist Beth Phalen ’85, who also serves on WPI’s Advisory Board for the CS Department, recalled that when she was a freshman the CS department was still using punch cards.

“Things have changed drastically,” she said. “When I share that we were still using punch cards with students now, they say, ‘That's in the first chapter of the computer science history book.’”

Fellow panelist and CS advisory board member Robert Mason ’94 volunteers in the Tech Advisors Network mentoring program for entrepreneurs and start-ups. For him, the heart of CS when he was in the program was the CCC (Campus Computer Center) in Fuller Labs.

“There were very large Digital Equipment Corp. computers and we would spend all hours working on projects, sometimes through the night,” he said. “It was very collaborative and people would help each other. WPI’s project focus and MQP really helped us understand how to work as a team—and that is so critical in business.”

“The greatest thing I got out of the CS program was the skills to solve any problem. Just like with developing software, we were taught to break down a problem into parts and come up with a solution." -- Chad Council ’94

Asima Silva’01, ’04 (MS CS), who also participated on the panel, recalled that during her time at WPI the CS Department went from floppy discs to laptops. She was also a single mother of three at the time––and one of only a few women in each of her classes––and credits her professors with helping her succeed.

“I was a minority in the department, especially with three kids at the time,” says Silva, whose son and husband are alumni, Mudassir Ali ’15 and David Silva ’00, respectively; her daughter, Sabrina Silva, will graduate from WPI this spring. “I used to come to school and my schedule was always hectic, but the professors were accommodating. I was able to accomplish what I did because of the support of my professors.”

Looking to the Future

Panelist Andreea Bodnari ’10 said she is living proof of the diversity on the WPI campus now. She came to WPI from Romania in 2007 and it was her first time traveling outside of Europe.

“It stuck with me how well-equipped I was to tackle a handful of problems,” she said. “You were not in the abstract world too long [at WPI] when you were asked the question, ‘How does that make a difference?’”

At the beginning of the decade, the industry was at the cusp of smart software, she said. Her PhD work and research spanned across all departments, giving her well-rounded experiences and knowledge of the world. She added, “I had the opportunity to hear many points of view, get better educated, dabble in fields of innovation research, and connect with alumni even after I graduated.”

--By Paula Owen

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