Five decades of computer science and engineering at Ohio State

Posted: April 1, 2020
Students in a computer lab in 1988.

In 1969, computer science was in its infancy. That year marked the first time computers were networked together at large scale, the underpinning of most industries today. It also marked the first full academic year of the Department of Computer and Information Science within The Ohio State University College of Engineering. In 2003, the department name changed to Computer Science and Engineering (CSE).

From 1955 to 1963, most of Ohio State’s computer sciences courses were taught in the Department of Mathematics. At the time, the Instruction and Research Computer Center was only a small computing center consisting of one machine with the capabilities of today’s simple pocket calculators. In November 1965, the university published a report on the growing popularity of computer science among students. The year before, 1,130 students were enrolled in computer classes, 280 in non-credit seminars, and there were 231 theses and dissertations on the topic of computers.

Marshall Yovits sits in an office.
Inaugural CSE Chair Marshall Yovits led the department from 1969 to 1978.

Under the leadership of Chair Marshall Yovits, the new department’s headquarters were located in Caldwell Laboratory, across the street from its current home in Dreese Laboratories. The predominant computers were IBM System/360 Model 50 and Model 75. For comparison, five Model 75 computers housed at NASA's Real-Time Computer Complex were used during the Apollo program.

With 15 faculty members and 11 supplemental instructors from the university and industry in 1969, the Department of Computer and Information Science offered 64 courses to 350 undergrads and 142 graduate students. Research focus areas included information storage and retrieval, human information processing, linguistics analysis and—although it seems extremely new right now—artificial intelligence (AI).

In an article from the College of Engineering’s magazine at the time, Yovits was credited with transforming the study of information science at Ohio State from a few computer-related courses to full department status with an approved doctorate program. He considered himself a fortunate scientist whose specialty was gaining the respect that sometimes eludes other disciplines.

At a 1968 University Board of Trustees meeting, President Novice Fawcett said the Department of Computer Information and Science “will offer a broad spectrum of courses … in a well-defined academic endeavor which has become recognized internationally as an appropriate scientific discipline.”

A female student sits in front of a desktop computer.
A student using a computer in 1975 (courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives)

By 1974, the Department of Computer and Information Science had “three times as many students and more than twice the number of courses than it did when established six years ago,” according to a Lantern article.

Today, a time when most aspects of our lives are somehow shaped by computer science, approximately 2,500 undergrads and 290 graduate students learn from and innovate with 48 CSE faculty members led by Interim Chair Tamal Dey. Research concentrations include AI, high performance computing, computer graphics, networking, software systems, data management and mining, and theory and algorithms. Total annual research expenditures stand around $10 million, double that of 2006. 

“This unprecedented growth brings challenges as well as opportunities, which the department is well-positioned to handle,” Dey said.

CSE faculty are highly regarded in their respective fields; the department boasts multiple prestigious awards and fellowships from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, among others.

The last decade has seen a number of initiatives spearheaded by faculty and students gain national attention. This includes the Translational Data Analytics Institute, the launch of one of the first data analytics degree programs in the world, an NSF Transdisciplinary Research in Principles of Data Science (TRIPODS) award, and the HackOHI/O hackathon, which hosts more than 800 students for a weekend in the Ohio Union. Additionally, Professor DK Panda is a co-principal investigator on a $60 million project with the Texas Advanced Computing Center to develop the largest supercomputer at any U.S. university and among the most powerful in the world.

Two students talk in a computer lab.
A computer lab in 1987 (courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives)

At the time of writing this article, the CSE department is navigating uncharted territory due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Faculty, staff and students have united to pull together its resources for delivering online instruction to one of the largest student bodies in the nation and to continue its cutting-edge research in computing.

“It is this spirit that has fostered the growth in CSE over the past 50 years,” Dey said, “and it is this spirit that will propel CSE to march forward in a world that is becoming increasingly computational.”