Listen to this article

URBANA — Taylor Erwin has a unique résumé for a software programmer.

Yes, he has the requisite computer science training from the highly competitive CS program at the University of Illinois. But there's a "plus" to his degree.

Erwin graduated last May with a "CS + X" degree from the UI, a fairly new option for students who want to combine computer science with another field — in his case, linguistics, or the study of human language.

A "CS + linguistics" degree makes sense for those interested in artificial intelligence and how computers understand language (think Google searches, Siri or Alexa).

"I think I found something that combines my passions," said Erwin, 23, who has always loved languages.

The combined degree also set him apart from other applicants for his job as a software engineer at Qualtrics in Seattle, which designs survey platforms for companies.

"I did my best to try to communicate how the experience I had combining the fields would help me in industry," said Erwin, who grew up in Naperville.

The "CS + X" program — which just added two new options, in the Department of Crop Sciences and the School of Music — grew out of the incredible demand for computer science degrees and the increasingly vital role of data and computing in "just about every area one could imagine," said Lenny Pitt, associate head of the computer science department.

Ten years ago, about 12 percent of freshmen applying to the UI College of Engineering wanted to be computer science majors. Today, it's about 40 percent.

Computer science is now the second-largest teaching department on campus, behind math — surpassing chemistry, psychology and economics.

"Over 13 percent of applications to the university are for the computer science major. That's nuts," Pitt said.

To keep up, the department has added more faculty, teaching assistants and classes. But, in 2010, former department head Rob Rutenbar launched plans to go "wide," offering joint "CS + X" degrees with other departments across campus.

It was clear that computing would have a significant impact in every field, Pitt said.

"We recognized that not everybody who wants to engage in computing in their studies needs to have a deep, systems-level understanding of how machines work and how the software works beneath the hood so much as they need to be able to problem-solve using computational thinking, be able to use software well," Pitt said.

It started with four partnerships within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — in anthropology, astronomy, chemistry and linguistics. About 200 students have signed on so far, but the number will grow.

Besides music and crop sciences, which are accepting students for next fall, other "CS + X" degrees in the works include advertising, economics and philosophy. Rutenbar said it's infused new excitement in some programs that were seeing enrollment declines.

There was already a precedent or two. The first computer science degree on campus, in 1965, was an interdisciplinary one, combining math and computer science. The computer science degree in the College of Engineering came later, in 1972. And the UI added a computer science/statistics degree in 1988.

No 'watered down degree'

The idea behind "CS + X" is that students still get a strong foundation in computer science, so it isn't a "watered down degree in any sense," Pitt said. But as regular computer science students move on to upper-level electives in different specialties, "CS +" students take advanced courses in their "X" field.

The template was created in 2014 for a "computer science plus LAS option," and the first four signed on.

There was already a strong link with linguistics, as professors in both departments taught computational linguistics, the foundations of artificial intelligence.

In chemistry, there was overlap with molecular and chemical modeling.

Astronomers were already using supercomputers to process huge amounts of data to model the universe.

And anthropologists, who study culture and community, now research online communities — how people interact digitally, Pitt said.

Both anthropology and computer science majors are problem-solvers by nature, said anthropology Professor Jessica Greenberg, director of undergraduate studies. They bring different skills to analyze fundamental challenges such as: What makes us human? How can technology improve social life and what are its ethical challenges?

Former department head Andrew Orta said he's seen a lot of interest in the joint major, and it's opened up new job possibilities for graduates in the design and development of new technology.

In chemistry, a huge department with 600 undergraduate majors, 40 to 50 students are enrolled in the "CS + Chemistry" option, said department head Martin Gruebele.

Professor Zaida Luthey-Schulten, who had already developed an advanced computational chemistry course, lobbied hard for the joint degree, he said.

An increasing number of pharmaceutical and chemical companies, such as Dow, want students with a strong background in chemistry and computer science who can talk to chemical engineers and help with "large data crunching that involves chemical systems," Gruebele said.

To understand the chemistry of cells in cancer research, for example, scientists literally "blow up a cell" and use a mass spectrometer to identify millions of molecules, Gruebele said. A chemistry major wouldn't have the techniques to process that data quickly, he said, and a typical computer science major wouldn't understand molecules and cells.

'Huge need' in job market

The joint degree in linguistics has been one of the fastest-growing "CS + X" options, with nearly 80 students enrolling thus far, compared to 90 linguistics-only majors, said Professor Roxana Girju, an academic adviser.

Traditionally, students interested in double-majoring, or combining a linguistics degree with a minor in computer sciences, had trouble getting the right courses or were left on their own to cobble it together, Girju said.

A double major also takes more time, because students have to fulfill all the requirements for each degree in two different colleges, Erwin said.

The joint major solves that problem and addresses "a huge need in the job market for graduates who can work on almost any aspect of artificial intelligence related to language processing," Girju said.

Graduates are courted by large companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon.

In the past, employers weren't always sure students with a minor or concentration in computer science had the requisite expertise, Girju said.

Computers and music

The new degree in "CS + Music" will be the first in the Midwest and give students a path to careers in music technology or the cutting edge of music composition, officials said. Ten to 15 majors will enroll next fall.

Pitt pointed to the technology behind music recognition apps such as Shazam or streaming systems like Pandora that analyze music to figure out what the user likes.

"When you listen to music, you listen on a digital device," he added.

The degree fills a void for young musicians who want to combine music and computing, said computer science Professor Paris Smaragdis, who helped develop three new courses for the "CS + Music" option.

A lot of music is technically driven, whether it's the Beatles recording four-track music or autotuning today, "but there's no place you can study that," he said.

The degree also builds on longstanding ties between engineering, computation and music at the UI, School of Music Director Jeffrey Magee said. Engineering Professor Joseph Tykociner in 1922 was one of the first researchers to add sound to film. And in the 1950s, Professor Lejaren Hiller established the Experimental Music Studio, the first of its kind in the world, and helped compose the first piece of music using a computer, the "ILLIAC Suite."

High-tech farming

The new crop sciences degree is the first of its kind in the country and combines two strengths of the university, said Professor German Bollero, head of the Department of Crop Sciences.

As with chemistry and other fields, industry partners are looking for students who have a technical background in data processing, said Bollero and Professor Matthew Hudson.

The joint degree will have two tracks — one for plant breeding and genomics, and the other for technology in production agriculture.

Hudson works in plant genetics, where it takes a supercomputer to handle the enormous amounts of data in genome sequencing. He's also involved in a huge Department of Energy biofuels grant to genetically engineer grasses such as miscanthus, sorghum and sugar cane to produce fuel oil.

Even conventional plant breeding is becoming much more computer-intensive, Hudson said. Researchers are using automatic imaging and "machine vision" with cameras or MRIs to measure the shape and growth of plants and select desirable traits, he said.

On the farm, drones fly over fields to collect data on crops. Tractors have sensors that take images of plants and gather data on yield and soil moisture. On-board devices help farmers determine exactly how much fertilizer or weed-killer is needed for every square foot of soil, optimizing production and protecting the environment from excess runoff that pollutes water supplies, Bollero said.

"The whole data-in-agriculture thing is just exploding right now, just because these capacities for mobile computing and wireless networking are available on farms in a way they weren't just a few years ago," Hudson said.

The "CS + Crop Sciences" program will accept 20 students a year, or 80 total over four years, compared to 150 crop sciences undergraduates.

Bollero hopes the new degree will boost enrollment by giving students interested in computer science a new way to think about that career — and attract those who wouldn't otherwise think about crop sciences.

"All of a sudden, we can tell them, 'Listen, you can actually improve the quality of life and people by coming to crop science.'"

Data science for all?

Most involved agreed the need for computer science will only grow, and it could be a requirement for all students someday.

"I think we're going to see more and more of this. Computational science is in our face every day," said Gruebele, noting that his iPhone has twice the computing power of the Cray supercomputer he used in graduate school in the late 1980s.

The need will vary by discipline, Pitt said, but "these days, it would be wise for everybody to have some basic knowledge of computational tools and how to use them and have a programming course here or there."

On the flip side, students in computer science will have to develop specialties, Girju said.

"Being a software engineer — and that's it — is not good enough anymore," she said.

 

Options aplenty

The University of Illinois computer science department, ranked fifth in the country, takes in more than 5,000 applications a year (average ACT: 33.5). Here’s a breakdown of enrollment in the various CS options for fall 2017:

➜ Computer science only: 1,122

➜ Math and computer science: 306

➜ Statistics and computer science: 203

➜ CS + Linguistics: 69

➜ CS + Chemistry: 47

➜ CS + Astronomy: 32

➜ CS + Anthropology: 26

Source: UI Department of Computer Science

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).