Professor Shwetak Patel’s computer lab at the University of Washington looks like the workshop of a very eccentric tinkerer: It includes a 3-D printer tucked in a corner, spectrum analyzers lined up on a shelf, an Atmos perpetual-motion clock on a workbench, and tools and cables of all shapes and sizes. Earlier this year, it contained a household plumbing rig.
And computers, of course — lots and lots of computers.
But floor space is so precious in the UW’s computer science and engineering building that Patel and his graduate students have had to disassemble some projects to make room for new ones.
“We’re running out of space,” said Patel, a professor of both computer science and electrical engineering, and the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2011.
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Across campus, principal lecturer Stuart Reges has a space issue of a different kind: He’s teaching an introductory computer-programming class with 700 students in Kane Hall 130, one of the largest lecture halls on campus. In two separate sections, a thousand students are taking the class this quarter alone — more than have ever taken computer programming in a single quarter at the Seattle campus.
At a moment in history when the computer is at center stage, and in a city where technology companies are driving a boom in the local economy, it’s no surprise that programming and technology majors are some of the most sought-after degrees on campus.
But as a result, just 11 years after the UW’s Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering opened, the building is maxed out, and there’s not much space to move any more projects elsewhere. Now, the UW is looking to build a new computer-science building on the Seattle campus. To do so, it expects to raise as much as $60 million privately, and will seek another $40 million from the Legislature.
The university is “guardedly optimistic” that legislators will support the request, computer-science chair Hank Levy said in an email, because lawmakers have been very supportive of the UW’s desire to educate more Washington students in the hot, lucrative field.
“We hope they’ll consider this seriously,” he wrote.
The new building could allow the UW to double the number of degrees it awards annually in computer science and engineering — from 300 to 600 — provided the state also provides extra funding to help support those degrees, given the higher salaries professors can demand and the need for equipment.
The need for new space is driven not only by the number of students who want to study computer science but also by rapid changes in what it means to study the discipline. Increasingly, computer-science students and faculty are building physical objects, not just software, Levy said.
Patel and his students, for example, are working on a wide variety of devices that can take readings on changes in the environment — alerting homeowners to water leaks in a house, or allowing them to chart changes in their consumption of electricity. One device can run in perpetuity, without batteries, by harvesting energy from changes in temperature, and another can run on a single watch battery for 25 years.
“Building tangible things is part of the research process,” Patel said.
The Allen Center is now out of lab and office space, Levy said, and the university “can’t hire additional faculty if there is not a place for them to carry out their work.”
Some projects and classes have been moved back into Sieg Hall, which formerly housed the computer-science department. A project on data science has taken over the top floor of the physics/astronomy building. The National Science Foundation-funded Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering moved across 15th Avenue Northeast, in a commercial office building.
In the past, the university has successfully raised money for such buildings privately. When it built the Allen Center, for example, the UW raised $42 million in private money during a difficult time economically, which was more than the school received from the Legislature (less than $10 million) and from UW funds ($20 million).
“We’re hoping that people and companies will continue to be extremely generous, because our value proposition is even stronger now than it was a dozen years ago,” Levy said.
The building would likely be about 130,000 square feet, a little smaller than the Allen Center. It would take about two years to design and another two to construct.
When it comes to computer-science classes, the biggest growth has been in introductory ones. In the 2013-14 academic year, about 2,700 students took the course — more than twice as many as 10 years ago.
Much of that demand is coming from students who do not plan to major in computer science.
Junior Melanie Goddard, who is majoring in engineering, is taking computer programming this quarter. It’s an important skill for an engineer to know, she said, and it’s also a good backup skill. “There’s always a job in computer science,” she said.
Sophomore Oscar Marczynski called the class a “résumé-builder.” Although he’s an informatics major who needs programming as prerequisite for other classes, he also believes knowing about the field can help him make smarter decisions in his quest to start his own company.
“I know a guy who spent $10,000 to get someone to build an app for him — and I know people who could have done that in an afternoon,” he said.
The Allen Center was designed without classrooms because, at the time of its construction, there was classroom space in the adjacent electrical-engineering building. But with an explosion in demand, the computer-science department now needs a 200-seat lecture hall and several 100-seat classrooms, in addition to rooms for smaller classes and seminars, Levy said.
Patel envisions a new building with a first floor that is entirely made up of flexible laboratory space that can be reconfigured to meet a variety of needs, and where students and researchers from different disciplines can invent together and learn from each other.
It might be a space like his lab, the ubiquitous computing center — or ubicomplab — one of the few rooms in the Allen Center with an antistatic floor, which dissipates the static electricity that can damage equipment.
Edward Wang, an electrical-engineering graduate student in Patel’s lab, said it’s important to have big lab spaces where students and researchers from different disciplines can collaborate.
Patel said some of his lab’s most recent work includes using microphones on mobile phones to assess asthma in patients, and using a phone’s camera to allow parents of newborns to monitor their infants for jaundice. “The medical school is directly involved in our work,” he said.
“One could argue,” he added, “that the computer is at the core of everything now.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org