Celebrating RWTH‘s “Digital Heartbeat”
50 years of computer science at RWTH Aachen University. It all began in 1972 with an independent diploma program.
Digitization, artificial intelligence, data science, data security – computer science buzzwords that seem ubiquitous. At RWTH Aachen University, these and other topics are the focus of research and teaching in the Computer Science Department. When computer science started at RWTH, there were no smartphones with social networks, no Internet, not even PCs. After gaining some initial experience teaching computer science as a minor in the diploma course in mathematics for a semester, the new discipline was established with three professors, offering students an independent diploma course at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.
Now Computer Science at RWTH is and has been celebrating its 50th birthday – with a week of festivities held under the motto “The digital heartbeat of RWTH.” Students, alums, members of RWTH and closely associated universities, as well as business partners, gathered to participate in a programming competition, a colloquium, and a company fair. They experienced the ceremonial farewell of the graduates sent on their way with a speech by Professor Christel Beier (TU Dresden) and enjoyed the closing party at which the computer science professors Joost-Pieter Katoen, Klaus Wehrle, Carsten Honerkamp, and Martin Grohe also acted as DJs.
The keynote speech was given by Christine Regitz, President of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft für Informatik), during a festive evening. “Digitization is shaping our societal transformation. As the leading science of digitization, computer science is therefore of particular importance. And without a strong information technology core as well as efficient, scalable, secure, reliable, and adaptable information technology systems, digitization cannot succeed,” she said, praising the fact that computer science at RWTH features these requirements and demands precisely.
On the festive occasion of the anniversary, the first Manfred Nagl Prize was awarded. It was supported by DAS Daten- und Systemtechnik GmbH and went to Dr. Matthias Volk. The award’s namesake shaped the development of computer science at RWTH for decades. In general, the evening was dedicated to the discipline’s growth and development over the years – featuring a look back to the beginnings in 1972, of course.
Professor Walter Oberschelp, appointed to a chair in Applied Mathematics with a Focus on Computer Science, can be considered the founding father of the program. Many in the university quickly showed interest in the newcomers, even though some still joked about how “computers were the result of lazy mathematicians.” “Other departments, especially mechanical engineering and medicine, overran us with offers to supervise thesis in computer science for which they would set their own discipline-specific assignments. Although clearly not based on altruistic motives, trying out computer science techniques on these practical applications was quite appealing to me.”
By the end of the 1970s, there were already 500 students enrolled in computer science, and by 1985 there were about 1000. One year later, the Computer Science Department was founded within the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. In 1999, the growing importance of computer science was also reflected in the renaming of the faculty to the Faculty of Mathematics, Computer Science and Natural Sciences. “Computer science has changed radically in five decades and, simultaneously, so has its perception among those outside the discipline, whether at RWTH, in industry, or society. Everything is now essentially shaped by computer systems,” explains the spokesperson for the Computer Science Department at RWTH, Professor Gerhard Lakemeyer.
RWTH counted more than 4500 computer science students in the last winter semester, the total number of first-year students over the past 50 years is 20,800, and a total of 726 doctorates were completed. At RWTH Aachen University, the discipline has had a formative influence in many areas. It is an essential component of the Internet of Production Cluster of Excellence, the profile areas, the centers for Artificial Intelligence and Simulation and Data Science, and it features prominently in Collaborative Research Centers and personal research funding instruments such as the ERC Grants. With Wil van der Aalst (2018) and Holger Hoos (2022), two top international researchers with Humboldt Professorships have recently been recruited for Aachen – proof of the importance of computer science at RWTH Aachen University, also in international comparison.
“In the 1970s, one could only vaguely guess at the importance this field would one day have, both for teaching and research, as well as for industry and our society. The subject, which was still unknown then, has since become a massive pillar of RWTH,” emphasized RWTH Rector Professor Ulrich Rüdiger during the festive evening of celebration. And keynote speaker Christine Regitz stated: “Openness and interdisciplinarity are the be-all and end-all for our discipline, and they are embraced here in Aachen in exemplary fashion.”