I received my undergraduate and master’s level education at Michigan State University. Here is a synopsis of the “state of the art” from 50 years ago and a few perspectives.
Computer Hardware at MSU
The first computer at MSU was the MISTIC (MIchigan STate Integrated Computer) which was built in 1956-1957. It was based on vacuum tube technology (2000 vacuum tubes!) and used paper tape or cards for both input and output. It was classified as a “supercomputer” at the time with a capacity of 1024 40-bit words (about 5K). It weighed a ton, occupied an entire room, was supported by a staff of 10 (on each shift), and consumed nearly 30 kilowatts of power.
In 1963 MISTIC was replaced by a transistor-based CDC 3600 which was in turn replaced by a CDC 6500 in 1968. These were also classified as supercomputers.
While the MISTIC was no longer operational when I arrived in 1966, it was still talked about. I worked on the 3600 for the early part of my education there, built a simulator of the 6500 before it arrived so we could get used to programming it, watched the 6500 be loaded into the computer center (by taking out a 2nd floor window and lifting the various components up with a crane), then used the 6500 for the remainder of my education there.
Computer Science Degrees at MSU
The first few courses were taught immediately after MISTIC became operational. They were initially elective courses in the Electrical Engineering department. The College of Engineering at the time just offered the five traditional disciplines – Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Metallurgy. Agricultural Engineering was also offered as a joint program with the College of Agriculture.
In 1966, a sixth discipline, Engineering Science, was added to the college’s offerings. This was a more applied engineering discipline. There were three “flavors” – Computer Science, Materials Science, and Systems Science. Computer Science became its own degree program in 1968, and in 1969 Computer Science became a separate department in the College of Engineering and graduate degrees were then offered. Systems Science became a separate degree program shortly thereafter. Materials Science became a department in 1971.
My Educational Track at MSU
When I graduated from high school I had never heard of computers. Since only government agencies, large research universities such as MSU, and large corporations had their own computers, that was not surprising. Since my strengths were both mathematics and science, I initially enrolled in the College of Engineering for the fall of 1966. Since all first-year engineering students had the same required courses, one did not select a specific discipline until their second year. However, I was tending toward Electrical Engineering as that was the most mathematical of the disciplines. One of the first courses I took was an Intro to Computing which was FORTRAN programming. I immediately fell in love with computers.
With a heavy course load and a few credits from having taken AP Calculus in high school, I became a sophomore in the spring quarter (MSU was on the quarter system back then). That fall, having completed the general engineering requirements, I began taking EE courses, the first one being semi-conductor design. I quickly decided that EE was a bit too technical to me and not to my liking the way that computer science was. I changed majors to Engineering Science (then just a year-old program), but taking courses that were applicable to both the computer science and systems science variations in that program. I was still taking a very heavy course load (18-22 credits a quarter) and was on track to graduate in just three years in 1969.
In 1968, just being a year away from graduation, computer science became an official degree program. I quickly changed my major to computer science. There were only 7 BS in CS degrees awarded in 1968. In 1969 that increased to 26 BS degrees of which I was awarded one. It was primarily a male-dominated degree program (as were all the engineering disciplines) with only one female graduate in 1968 and two in 1969. The engineer science disciplines all required two minors in addition to the major – mine were in mathematics and systems science – because I had kept my options open until my final year I was only one course short of having a systems science degree as well.
With the graduate program starting that fall, I decided to remain and work on an MS in Computer Science as well. The graduate program was pretty small as well in those early years and there were often only 3-5 students in a class. I received my MS in CS in the winter of 1971 (the only graduate in that discipline that quarter). By then I had also decided to get a second graduate degree – an MBA. I was taking several courses that could apply to both degrees. I received my MBA in the summer of 1971, having thus been awarded three degrees in just five years.
Changes in the MSU Offerings Since Then
The College of Engineering has expanded to offer degree programs in Applied Engineering Science, Biosystems Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Environmental Engineering.
The Computer Science Department awards roughly 150 BS, 20 MS, and 15 PhD degrees each year. The CS program is accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET. (As a side note, for 6 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was an accreditor for CSAC, the Computer Science Accreditation Commission, and the forerunner of the CAC.)
When I received my BS degree in 1969, there were very few institutions who had degree programs. None of my professors had CS degrees – they were degreed in things like engineering, mathematics, social science, and other disciplines.
While the growth in BS-CS degrees offered at MSU has increased from 7 in 1968, to 26 in 1969, to 150 today, that is not nearly sufficient to meet the demand for those with computer science knowledge today.
CS degrees are still quite male-dominated, although perhaps less so than other engineering disciplines. But they are also heavily dominated by non-US citizens. Based on last names and pictures, the full-time faculty appears to be 18 Asians, 6 from the Middle East, 3 from Germany, and only 4 from the US. There are also only 5 women out of 31 faculty (all but one of them being Asian). The student body is also quite heavily Asian.
Although it was my CS background that got me my initial job, technology is a constantly changing field and one has to keep getting retrained and re-educated to keep up with these changes. But something that carried on all throughout my career were the things that I learned in those Systems Science courses, essentially the ability to look at the larger picture and envision how technology can then be applied to help improve things. So I would advise those looking at a CS education to not get too enamored with the more technical CS courses, but to balance those with course that foster “systems thinking”.