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Computer Science Enhances Interdisciplinary Learning

Northwestern’s CS Transformation Initiative prepares faculty and students in a data-driven world.

computer science students hero
Computer science students in Mudd Hall after its renovation and reopening in 2018

Spring 2021

Interest in computer science has skyrocketed over the past few years, fueled by a surge of available data, enhanced computing power and advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. At Northwestern the number of undergraduate students majoring in the field has tripled, and course enrollments have doubled — even non-majors are taking advanced classes. 

With an eye on the future, the McCormick School of Engineering launched the Computer Science Transformation Initiative in 2016 and announced plans to hire 20 new faculty members: 10 in computer science and 10 with joint appointments across the University (referred to as CS+X). To date, 11 new faculty have been hired, plus a department chair. And with the support of visionary philanthropists, the program is revolutionizing learning across disciplines at Northwestern.

Samir Khuller, the Peter and Adrienne Barris Chair of Computer Science

The University has long had an outstanding reputation among its peers for interdisciplinary collaboration. Computer science faculty have held joint appointments in journalism, music and education — fields in which the University is a global leader. CS+X builds on this tradition by using computer science and computational thinking to push the boundaries of discovery in areas such as medicine, economics, law and international affairs, while potentially creating new branches of learning. Leading the initiative and the computer science department is Samir Khuller, the Peter and Adrienne Barris Chair of Computer Science, who joined the Northwestern Engineering faculty in 2019 from the University of Maryland, where he helped build one of the top computer science departments in the nation.

“I am delighted to see the tremendous progress that has already been made in the department and look forward to continued success,” says University Trustee and McCormick Advisory Council member Peter Barris ’74, who, along with his wife, made a gift to endow the chair.

CS+X brings together disciplines that may seem like they have little in common with each other. For example, the CS + Humanities Postdoctoral Fellows program funded by McCormick Advisory Council member Bob Shaw ’70, ’81 MBA and Weinberg College Board of Advisors member Charlene Shaw ’70 provides for two emerging scholars who are harnessing the power of computer science to offer insights into human behavior and written language. One fellow is building machine learning systems to predict high-risk mental health behaviors, while the other is on a team that’s converting 60,000 books printed between 1473 and 1700 into searchable text optimized for data visualization.

To support the CS Transformation Initiative, Northwestern Engineering embarked on a project to re-imagine the third floor of Seeley G. Mudd Hall. Opened in 2018, the 22,600-square-foot facility unites Northwestern Engineering’s computer science faculty all in one place and is located on Evanston’s North Campus. The space promotes purposeful and spontaneous collaborations between engineers, entrepreneurs, management experts and computer scientists in one innovation ecosystem.

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