Julia V. Mitelman ’13 had her first encounter with computer science at Harvard watching David J. Malan ’99 rip a phonebook in half. He was explaining binary search before a packed audience in Sanders Theatre.
“I knew right away that I had to take the course,” says Mitelman, who has since decided to declare computer science as a secondary field.
Though only 10 to 15 percent of total enrollees are actual CS concentrators, Computer Science 50 has become an increasingly popular course at Harvard, with more than 525 students enrolled in the class last fall.
“Students are drawn to CS for all sorts of reasons,” writes Malan, instructor of the popular programming course, in an email. “Some want to program, some want to build things, some want to start companies, and some simply want to understand the increasingly technological world around them.”
Students and professors alike say that the image of the computer scientist has changed along with the growing popularity of the field.
“There is this general sense that [CS] is not a private club for super-geeks,” says former Harvard Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who has taught computer science at Harvard since 1974.
A REVOLUTIONARY COURSE
While the popularity of successful web startups such as Facebook and Google have piqued a general interest in CS, students and faculty members say that it is the introductory programming course, CS50, that has kept students excited about CS at Harvard.
“At Harvard, the person who gets the credit is David Malan,” Computer Science Professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83 says. “He turned CS50 into a class with a real community.”
According to Seltzer, “getting people in the door” has been the biggest hurdle to promoting student interest in CS. In recent years, Malan says, he has worked hard to dispel misconceived stereotypes and a general fear of quantitative subjects like coding—turning to theatrics like ripping the phonebook to encourage students to stick with the course.
“An overarching goal of CS50 is to get students excited about a field that, for most of them, is entirely new,” Malan writes in an email.
Malan says he believes his course creates an atmosphere in which students can “feel comfortable stepping into the classroom” and “feel part of something special”—particularly for those learning programming for the first time. Students say that the unique “CS50 culture,” together with the collaborative environment, contributes to the special learning experience that the course strives to deliver.
The growth of CS50 reflects the success of Harvard’s computer science program’s ongoing mission to popularize the field by expanding outreach.
“When we grew CS about 10 years ago, the faculty themselves proposed that CS at Harvard should be different in that it should not only have excellence in computer science, but a strong outreach component,” former School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti says.
He added that computer science will become “a discipline in which we would connect at society in large,” a goal that aligns with the liberal arts mission of the College.