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Students Shift to Computer Science

When city officials launched a competition last year to build an applied-sciences campus on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island, they hoped an outpost of a top-tier school would draw elite students and boost New York's burgeoning technology and engineering scene.

But a survey of New York-area schools shows interest in a geek-chic education is already on the rise ahead of the opening of the campus, a $2 billion project announced this week and backed by Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The number of declared undergraduate computer science majors at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science jumped 12% this year over last year; at New York University, the number rose 10%. Queens College and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., also reported jumps in the number of computer science majors. At the same time, the number of students enrolled in computer science classes has surged between 30% and 50%, professors said.
The increase follows a national trend: Computer science majors increased 7.6% across the country from 2009 to 2010, the most recent available data, according to the Computing Research Association.
"Computing now penetrates into just about every line of business and academic discipline," said Zhigang Xiang, chair of Queens College's Computer Science Department. "It's hard to find one field where you don't need it."
"People certainly realize [computing] is now getting to be a basic skill in the 21st century," Mr. Xiang said.
Still, New York—long a familiar home for poetry-minded sorts and hard-charging financiers—traditionally has lagged behind other cities as a technology hub.
That's slowly changing. Neighborhoods such as Union Square in Manhattan and Dumbo in Brooklyn have become incubators for start-ups. Young tech workers live in lower Manhattan rental buildings where bankers used to dominate. In its yearlong competition, New York City offered city-owned land and $100 million in infrastructure costs to attract schools.
And students are noticing. Arvind Srinivasan, a Columbia sophomore studying computer science, said he moved to New York from Fremont, Calif., because he was drawn by the city's multi-dimensional nature.
"When I was thinking about schools, I wanted to go somewhere that had a start-up ecosystem—in and around cities—but I wanted a place that wasn't unilaterally focused on technology as an engineering problem," Mr. Srinivasan said.
"New York is really the up-and-coming place because people who don't have traditional technology backgrounds are starting companies in completely different sectors and utilizing technology," he said.
Seth Pinsky, president of New York City's Economic Development Corporation, who helped lead the contest, echoed the sentiments. As the technology industry shifts from a hardware-based model to a software-based model, New York is positioned well with access to clients and a pool of potential employees who understand marketing, consumers, media and communications, Mr. Pinsky said.
Other students are turning toward computer science because of a change in social mores: A backlash against Wall Street bailouts means careers in the financial sector may now carry a negative stigma, said Adam Cannon, associate chair for undergraduate education in Columbia's department of computer science. Mr. Cannon's introduction to computer science class has surged to about 300 students this semester, compared to 200 last year.
While the new applied sciences school is expected to drive up the number of engineering graduate students in the city by 70% next year, some students are fueling growth on their own, little by little.
Vivek Patel entered NYU studying information systems at its Stern School of Business. But after attending some club meeting he was struck by Tech@NYU, a club fostering entrepreneurship.
"Little by little, I discovered the potential of technology and how it could really move mountains," the 19-year-old sophomore said. After sitting in on the Introduction to Computer Science class taught by Evan Korth, an associate NYU professor, Mr. Patel saw his peers building products and was motivated to study the topic. If he stayed at Stern, he says, he would've focused more on the business side but nothing "tangible."
"It was me having the last straw," Mr. Patel said. "I wanted to build stuff."

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